FairWarining Reports

Traffic Deaths: A Surprising Dimension of the Red State-Blue State Divide

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The nation’s red and blue states often are miles apart in social attitudes and, of course, political outlook.

It turns out that they also divide into distinct camps when it comes to a grimmer measure — fatal traffic accidents.

To an extent that mystifies safety experts and other observers, federal statistics show that people in red states are more likely to die in road crashes. The least deadly states – those with the fewest crash deaths per 100,000 people – overwhelmingly are blue.

In the absence of formal definitions for red or blue states, we labeled as red the states that favored Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and as blue those that supported the reelection of President Obama.

The 10 states with the highest fatality rates all were red, while all but one of the 10 lowest-fatality states were blue. What’s more, the place with the nation’s lowest fatality rate, while not a state, was the very blue District of Columbia.

Massachusetts was lowest among the states, with 4.79 road deaths per 100,000 people. By contrast, red Wyoming had a fatality rate of 27.46 per 100,000.

When shown the pattern, author Thomas Frank — who has examined the nation’s political culture in such books as “What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America” – called it “amazing.”

“This is someplace where you would not expect to see a partisan divide,” Frank said.

Even the former federal auto safety researcher who brought the numbers to FairWarning’s attention, Louis V. Lombardo, couldn’t explain them. “It may be something we don’t have a definitive answer for,” he said.

Some observers offered the possible explanation that blue states tend to adopt stronger safety laws, while red states opt for looser regulation, presumably leading to more fatalities. For example, red Texas last month opened a toll road with a speed limit of 85 mph, the nation’s highest.

But the sweeping generalization doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

For one thing, federal pressure in many cases has prodded states to enforce similar safety rules, such as seat belt requirements. And states don’t always act along predictable liberal-versus-conservative lines. As FairWarning has reported, blue Michigan in April repealed its requirement that all motorcyclists wear helmets, while some states with the toughest helmet laws are in the Deep South.

Traffic safety experts generally suggest that a mix of factors accounts for the varying rates. Possible variables include access to top-level trauma centers, weather conditions and how much of a state is rural, because rural residents may drive longer distances on narrow, winding roads. Lower income and education levels may also contribute to higher death rates.

“This is someplace where you would not expect to see a partisan divide,”

    – Thomas Frank, author

“No matter how you look at fatal crash rates, there are some important things that explain why states are different, and they’re not political explanations,” said Anne McCartt, the senior vice president for research with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Complicating things further is the possibility that deaths per 100,000 residents isn’t the best yardstick for comparisons. Fatalities per total miles traveled, some experts say, is better.

For his part, Lombardo says he’s less interested in the causes of the state differences than in reducing the toll of U.S. traffic deaths, estimated at 32,885 in 2010.

For instance, he advocates getting crash victims medical treatment more quickly by expanding air ambulance services.

The key question, Lombardo added, is “how do we move the people, and [have] the people then move their politicians, to do the right thing?”

If he needs evidence that at least some parts of the country can do better, Lombardo can point to the striking red-blue divide in the accompanying chart.

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Stuart Silverstein

About the author

Stuart Silverstein is assistant editor at FairWarning.

28 comments to “Traffic Deaths: A Surprising Dimension of the Red State-Blue State Divide”

  1. Brian

    Red States with cell phone driving restrictions 1 of 24; Blues states with cell phone driving restrictions 12 of 27

    Red states with texting and driving laws 18 of 24; Blue states with texting and driving laws 27 of 27

    Looks like there is a correlation to laws and driving performance.

  2. Laina in Naples

    Some Demo donkey stayed up late wringing the truth out of something to come up with this.

  3. William A. Draves

    This is not surprising at all. The reason: Young people are driving less and also moving to states with light rail and trains, which right now happen to be mainly blue states. Thus blue states are those states most likely (a few exceptions of course) to have more light rail and trains, and more likely to have younger people who are driving less, some not even driving at all.

  4. Katz

    One more point. Impaired drivers are not ‘the exception’. Around 40% of fatal crashes can be linked to alcohol or other drug impairment. There doesn’t seem to be any political correlation to DUI offenses. One thing you can pin on rural states, however, is a statistically lower use of seat belts. Seat belt usage is the single greatest factor in surviving a crash. Young men, particularly those in pickup trucks, are less likely statistically to buckle up. This could be because they feel safer in large vehicles or don’t view rural road driving as hazardous (compared to navigating city traffic). Either way, politics don’t seem to be a factor.

  5. Katz

    I agree that the per capita crash rate is almost useless. VMT would be a much more revealing analysis. In DC, New York, Boston and Illinois, for instance, much of the population lives in large cities with excellent public transportation. I know many people who never even get a driver’s license or own cars. In rural areas, people often apply for hardship licenses at young ages because not even the school bus comes out to where they live. So, only a VMT comparison of fatality rates seems fair. In response to an earlier post, as a metro DC area resident, I can see lots of pro-Obama and pro-Romney folks (based on bumper stickers) driving with and without signaling. So, I am not sure you could can use one person’s observations to prove a point such as the one you are asserting.

  6. Ebo Ericsson

    To those who make the apology about rural areas, as well as those who mention minority groups, I have three comments: 1. Irresponsible and/or intoxicated drivers are the exception, not the norm. 2. Here is a blog that takes mileage and time on the road into account, yet the results are pretty much the same: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/09/28/worst-drivers-in-america-which-state-has-the-most-accidents.html

    3. Don’t take my word for it. I suggest you start watching for cars in front of you that have bumper stickers from presidential campaigns, and see for yourself how many of them use their blinkers. I personally do not recall having seen a single Obama supporter who did not use their blinkers as required (doesn’t mean there aren’t any); while an awful lot of McCain and Romney supporters either didn’t use their blinkers at all, or used them only when turning at an intersection. Funny thing is, you’re a heck of a lot less likely to get rear-ended when turning at an intersection than you are when cutting somebody off.

    Not to sound like a Pharisee picking at peccadillos, but a lot of people interpret the term, “law abiding citizen” simply as one who is not on parole or probation. But the world is not split in two (good party, bad party), and we’ve all gotten away with a no-no or two. And if you are thumbing up your nose at traffic laws because you think they are silly or unnecessary, remember that signaling a lane change can prevent the person you’re about to pull in front of from speeding up and hitting you in the rear. This is the law in most states, if not all of them. And you put your life and the lives of others in danger by failing to adhere, including the lives of children and unborn babies (Pro-life, anyone?). And even if you haven’t had an accident yet, there is a first time for everything. And my risk of having an accident – or being found responsible for one – is lesser than yours.

  7. Ebo Ericsson

    There may very well be a mix of factors, but I thought I might mention one interesting observation I have made: the driver of practically every single vehicle with an Obama sticker uses their blinkers as required, while an awful lot of those with Romney or McCain stickers either don’t use their blinkers at all, or do it only when turning onto an intersecting lane. I should note that, even in MO, the law does require people to signal when changing lanes. And if anything, I’d say it’s more important to signal a lane change, lest the person you’re about to pull in front of suddenly speeds up and rear-ends you.

  8. Parrish Hirasaki

    I live in Texas. The percentage of vehicles that are large SUVs and pickup trucks is very high. The weight of the vehicle relates to the amount of damage it could cause.

  9. Bob

    Ryan shows some very insightful, well thought out comments. Obviously a well educated, inquisitive, analytical and unbiased individual. It is a well documented fact that Liberals and Democrats are a bunch of drug crazed / dazed drivers, not to speak of the illegal wetbacks they help sneak across the border to work at their vegan restaurants in San Francisco. If only we could get rid of the public transportation and bikes these Commie Rats have foisted on the Red Blooded American Public would have a viable All American Big Three. After all, we know that some snob that drives a Japanese Lexus is no better than a true patriot that drives an All American Detroit iron Honda. God I miss Mitt already!

  10. Ryan

    Dems sure love playing with numbers and pie charts and distorting anything they can find so they can generalize their biased views on others. If you want to actually take this article seriously you should also factor in that most Dems live in large cities where they generally don’t commute long distances and are more likely to use public transportation or taxis or in the case of SF I guess bike ride…..Red states are generally more spread out, rural living, therefore more travelling and likelihood of traffic accidents. But it would be interesting if the libtards who conjured up this article factored in the millions of illegal aliens (who are left leaning and without licenses or insurance) or those under the influence….since one could argue Dems/liberals are more inclined to be drug users and accepting of the legalization of recreational drugs. Mike M.’s comment about education has no merit or relation to traffic accidents and to imply that Democrats are more educated is a farce–someone who is college educated can drive just as bad or worse than someone who is high school educated–apples and oranges Mikey…Income, same thing, unrelated….someone in a Lexus can drive just as bad as someone in a Honda….

  11. Bill Kovarik

    Road safety experts I’ve talked with say the condition of a road is very important. Newer asphalt is far less slippery than older asphalt, even if there are no potholes or obvious problems. So its quite possible that these red states are putting less money into re-paving roads.

  12. John

    The speed limit in the District of Columbia is 25mph, unless otherwise marked. How many fatalities will occur at that speed as compared to a state where the speed limit is 65 or 70?

  13. S. Spacek

    Colorado (blue state) and Mississippi (red state) has the highest Death Chance Rates from vehicle collisions from debris and litter on public roadways, according to the American State Litter Scorecard, which used official NHTSA data as analysis.
    Other top states for a chance to die from debris/vehicle crashes include red Montana, red North Dakota, red Kansas and red Louisiana.

  14. Jeff Dubrule

    This isn’t surprising at all. The more miles the average person in a region drives, the more traffic deaths there will be.

    I looked up the statistics for total vehicle-miles travelled for each state (in 2010), divided it by the population, and compared that to the deaths/100k. A (crappy) graph is here: http://i.imgur.com/vdz21.png (ignore the points at the bottom, I couldn’t figure out a better way to red/blue te series)

    There are no outliers, and the red states that scored well are still in line with the linear relationship, as are the blues that did badly.

    So, if you want to solve this, there’s two ways:
    a) reduce the amount of driving everyone does, though land-use planning, making it more expensive to drive, and providing alternatives, wherever possible.
    b) figure out how to make driving each mile safer than it is now, through better road design, lower speed limits, and actual enforcement of distracted/drunk/fatigued laws.

    The first is probably easier than the second; as humans, our attention span isn’t great, and we’re not adapted to travel more than 15 mph or so at a full sprint.

  15. Bill Kovarik

    A neutral measure might be traffic deaths per million vehicle miles, by state. I looked this up (http://www.census.gov/statab/ranks/rank39.html) and the same pattern seems to hold: Massachusetts is the safest and Montana is the worst; West Virginia is twice as bad as Virginia; Mississippi is twice as bad as Michigan. I dont have any answers here, but it sure raises a lot of questions.

  16. Scott Johnson

    The statistic that is commonly used to determine road safety and need to make improvements is accidents or fatalitys per million miles driven. You can get those numbers at the page linked by Louis in a comment below. I didn’t compare them all, but a quick look at the highest and lowest few states yielded comparable numbers

  17. Louis V. Lombardo

    Fatality rates for 2010 by State in terms of VMT, Per registered vehicles, Per licensed drivers, and Per population are available in the Appendix at

    http://www.adamsairmed.org/public_site.html

  18. Louis V. Lombardo

    Fatalities per mile driven data are problematic for a number of reasons:

    * The public health metric gold standard is per 100,000 population (for all public health problems),

    * Metrics based on per million VMT have been:

    - are less reliable,
    - sometimes politicized,
    - denominator values changed frequently by FHWA for allocation of highway funds,
    - difficult to measure differences in VMT by vehicle type, e.g. trucks vs. cars by State, and speeds,
    - inappropriate because numerator and denominator are not both in population units (illustrated by the question: How important is it if you can go twice as far before you die of crash injuries?)

    People need to ask themselves how can we do better saving lives of people.

  19. Aaron W

    Deaths per 100,000 people? What a pointless metric to use when measuring road fatalities.

    If you measure subway deaths per 100,000 people, I guarantee you’ll see an even starker red/blue divide… and it’s not because blue states have more dangerous subways.

  20. Louis V. Lombardo

    Many good comments on the importance of distance in providing emergency medical care. An information resource on availability of air medical services by State is available at

    http://www.adamsairmed.org/public_site.html

    Maps show location of air medical services and hospitals in each State.

  21. Lisa Neidert

    Many of the previous commentors have noted that the states with the worst incidence of traffic fatalities are in areas without much choice for transport except private cars/trucks. And, the best performing states are densely populated states with public transit systems.

    Another point to consider is the availability of trauma hospitals. One of the big boons to gun violence mortality is the advent of trauma hospitals, which can handle these incidents. So, a hunting accident in rural New Hampshire, Montana, Idaho, etc. results in a death whereas an equally gruesome incident in urban Detroit, Chicago, Houston, etc. results in life. The same thing for traffic accidents. There are plenty of traffic accidents in Houston, Dallas, Chicago, etc., but there are nearby hospitals able to handle the injuries. Not so much for accidents that happen 200 miles from the nearest trauma hospital. Here’s a link to “Trauma, the neglected disease of the 21st century” http://bit.ly/RRZHTx

  22. Tracy Mohr

    Jake Danczyk has touched on several important factors – furthermore, states with more large urban areas or that are more densely populated are also likely to have more public transit, and hence lower traffic fatality rates.

  23. Louis V. Lombardo

    Dear Readers:

    My aim is to show that reducing the crash death problem deserves bi-partisan support, but often does not get bi-partisan support. So what we need is a tri-partisan debate that includes the views of the people. Our goal should be that none of us should die of crash injuries in any State without definitive emergency medical care.

    As I wrote on my blog just before the election, we have had Republican political opposition to auto safety legislation that should not be supported by the people living in Red States. See http://www.careforcrashvictims.com/blog-election.php

    Year after year the percent of people dying of crash injuries without being transported to any facility for medical treatment exceeds 50 percent. One would think that medically trained politicians in Congress (mostly Republicans) would be eagerly seeking ways to reduce such tragedies now occurring on average at a rate of about 50 each and every day in the U.S. without receiving timely, optimal, emergency medical care.

    We can and must do better than this treating Americans injured in crashes.

  24. Jake Danczyk

    This article does not seem to have had much thought go into it. The states at the top tend to be more rural, where people have to drive longer distances, average speeds are much higher, and emergency response times are lower. The states at the bottom are more urban. Many people living in cities drive rarely if at all, speeds are lower, distances are lower, and response times are faster. There are a few exceptions, but these may have other factors at play, i.e. in Alaska during much of the year heavy winter causes people to limit long distance travel and much of the population is concentrated in urban Anchorage. And of course, rural areas tend to be conservative, urban liberal. I saw this on nbcnews.com and followed it back here, hoping whoever wrote this sees my comment and realizes the simple explanation or else admits that they are less interested in real investigative journalism than they are in shock headlines.

  25. jane stevens

    Would this list look the same with other presidential elections over the last 30 years? Probably not. A better approach would be to examine the data more closely. Seatbelt use, drinking and driving, old cars v. new cars, speeding, road construction (e.g. many Missouri roads don’t have shoulders…one twitch of the steering wheel, and you’re upside down in a ditch.)
    This article reminds me of that old joke of the guy who asks another guy standing on a Manhattan street corner and snapping his finger: “What are you doing?” “Keeping the herds of elephants away,” he says. “There aren’t any herds of elephants in Manhattan,” says the other guy. “See?” says the finger-snapper. “It’s working.”

  26. Louis V. Lombardo

    Thank you to Stuart Silverstein and FairWarning for giving readers this timely information just before the three most dangerous holiday weekends for motorists. Over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years weekends we can expect more than 1000 Americans will die of crash injuries and several thousand more to suffer serious crash injuries.

    Readers seeking more information on fatalities by State can view data at
    http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/departments/nrd-30/ncsa/STSI/USA%20WEB%20REPORT.HTM

  27. Mark Kneip

    Perhaps a better indicator would be traffic fatalities per 100,000 registered vehicles or per 100,000 licensed drivers. Would suspect that Wyoming has the higher registered vehicles per its population, and the wide open spaces would lend to higher average driving speeds than in large metropolitan areas.

  28. mike migdalian

    Not so mysterious, if you think of the other things that distinguish red and blue states, including differences in education levels, individual income, and local resources. Each of these factors — which may play out as greater awareness of drunk driving or non-seatbelt use, ownership newer and more safely equipped cars, and higher enforcement of proper road/vehicle use — could contribute to these differences.

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