Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a major contributor to morbidity and mortality in trauma patients. Although many injuries and conditions are believed to be associated with ARDS independent risk factors in trauma patients and their relative importance in development of the syndrome are undefined. The aim of this project is to identify independent risk factors for the development of ARDS in blunt trauma patients and to examine the contributions of each factor to ARDS development. Patients with ARDS were identified from the registry of a Level I trauma center over a 4.5-year period. Records were reviewed for demographics, injury characteristics, transfusion requirements, and hospital course. Variables examined included age >65 years, Injury Severity Score (ISS) >25, hypotension on admission (systolic blood pressure <90), significant metabolic acidosis (base deficit <-5.0), severe brain injury as shown by a Glasgow Coma Scale score (GCS) <8 on admission, 24-hour transfusion requirement >10 units packed red blood cells, pulmonary contusion (PC), femur fracture, and major infection (pneumonia, empyema, or intra-abdominal abscess). Both univariate and stepwise logistic regression were used to identify independent risk factors, and receiver operating characteristic curve (ROC) analysis was used to determine the relative contribution of each risk factor. A total of 4397 patients having sustained blunt trauma were admitted to the intensive care unit and survived >24 hours between October 1995 and May 2000. Of these patients 200 (4.5%) developed ARDS. All studied variables were significantly associated with ARDS in univariate analyses. Stepwise logistic regression, however, demonstrated age >65 years, ISS >25, hypotension on admission, 24-hour transfusion requirement >10 units, and pulmonary contusion as independent risk factors, whereas admission metabolic acidosis, femur fracture, infection, and severe brain injury were not. Using a model based on the logistic regression equation derived yields better than 80 per cent discrimination in ARDS patients. The risk factors providing the greatest contribution to ARDS development were ISS >25 (ROC area 0.72) and PC (ROC area 0.68) followed by large transfusion requirement (ROC area 0.56), admission hypotension (ROC area 0.57), and age >65 (ROC area 0.54). Independent risk factors for ARDS in blunt trauma include ISS >25, PC, age >65 years, hypotension on admission, and 24-hour transfusion requirement >10 units but not admission metabolic acidosis, femur fracture, infection, or severe brain injury. Assessment of these variables allows accurate estimate of risk in the majority of cases, and the most potent contributors to the predictive value of the model are ISS >25 and PC. Improvement in understanding of which patients are actually at risk may allow for advances in treatment as well as prevention in the future.