FairWarining Reports

Revisiting a Red State-Blue State Divide

States With Worst Highway Death Rates Favored Trump -- Why?



November’s presidential contest was bizarre in many ways, but there is one peculiarity that pundits haven’t pounced on: The states with the worst rates of traffic deaths in the country went solidly for Donald Trump while Hillary Clinton swept states with the lowest fatality rates.

That odd association between traffic deaths and how states voted echoes what happened just over four years ago, when this red-blue divide first came to light. As FairWarning reported in 2012, low fatality states voted blue to re-elect President Obama, while states with higher death rates went red for GOP challenger Mitt Romney.

This November’s presidential voting reshuffled the deck somewhat. Six states that were Obama blue in 2012 turned red in 2016, delivering a victory to the GOP’s Trump. Yet the correlation between traffic death rates and presidential voting actually appears slightly stronger.

“Not only is there a connection, it’s really quite amazing,” said Joni Graves, a Wisconsin traffic consultant and researcher.

In all, the 14 states with the highest fatality rates went into the red column, supporting Trump. In contrast, the 12 states with the lowest fatality rates were blues that favored Clinton. In these calculations, fatality rates were determined by counting the number of road deaths in 2015 per every 100,000 people.

(In 2012, by comparison, 10 states with the highest fatality rates were reds, and the eight states with the lowest rates were blues.)

‘Surprising On Its Face’

RedStateBlueStateGraphicFeb2At first blush, experts struggle to come up with convincing explanations for the phenomenon. “It is surprising on its face,” acknowledged Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a Washington nonprofit organization.

Yet, after evaluating the pattern, Cicchino, Graves and other analysts have concluded that it chiefly reflects the more rural character of the crimson states, versus the more urban makeup of the blue ones.

Cicchino noted that, taking the number of miles traveled into account, deaths on rural roads are about 2½ times higher than on urban thoroughfares. U.S. figures for 2014 indicate 1.82 deaths per 100 million miles traveled in rural areas, versus 0.76 deaths per 100 million miles traveled in urban areas.

One likely reason for the difference is that rural motorists are apt to be going fast when they crash, while urban drivers are more likely to travel slowly on roads choked with traffic. And some urban residents ride mass transit rather than travel by car.

The higher driving speeds also may stem from varying state laws. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 18 states have speed limits of 75 mph or higher on certain roads. Among those high speed limit states, the reds outnumber the blues 13-to-5.

In rural areas, roads also are more likely to be undivided, two-lane thoroughfares, so it’s easier for a driver to cross over into oncoming traffic. And after a crash occurs, emergency medical service in rural communities may be farther away and less sophisticated than in the big cities.

Another likely factor behind high fatality rates in red rural states is that their residents tend to be poorer. As a result, “Their cars are probably in worse repair. There can be a missing light in the back, or the clutch goes out,” said sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of the 2016 book “Strangers In Their Own Land,” which explored views of conservatives in red state Louisiana.

Hochschild also said “a kind of cowboy mentality, a kind of deregulatory, anything goes culture” exists in red states might lead to more reckless driving.

One form of risk-taking is failing to wear seat belts. According to a national estimate, 90.1 percent of drivers and front-seat passengers buckled up in 2016. Although there are plenty of exceptions, recent numbers show that states with lower rates of seat belt use have tended to be red.

Rising Death Toll

The new evidence of a red state-blue state divide comes as road fatalities are climbing, bucking a trend of generally declining U.S. traffic deaths since the 1970s, when the totals some years exceeded 50,000. In 2015, traffic fatalities reached 35,092, up 7.2 percent from the year before – the biggest single-year increase since 1966. An estimate from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration covering the first nine months of 2016 points to yet another rise, about 8 percent.

Louis V. Lombardo, a road safety activist and former NHTSA scientist who in 2012 brought to light the election-traffic deaths correlation, says he doesn’t actually dwell much on the phenomenon. He says his real interest is in preventing road deaths.

To that end Lombardo has championed measures such as using air ambulances to speed emergency medical care for crash victims. He also faults his former agency for failing to set strong standards for vehicle crashworthiness and for such technologies as automatic braking and automatic crash notification systems on vehicles to promptly alert emergency medical responders.

“Never before in the history of humankind have we had more technology available to reduce deaths and serious injuries than we have today,” Lombardo said.

Yet, he said, even though tens of thousands of Americans die on the roads every year, “neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have adequately addressed this question.”

Correction: An earlier version of the accompanying graphic wrongly showed Vermont as a red state. In fact, it went blue in November, voting for Hillary Clinton. 

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About the author

Stuart Silverstein is assistant editor at FairWarning.

7 comments to “Revisiting a Red State-Blue State Divide”

  1. Ken Klein

    Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book, including its analysis of the “cowboy mentality,” is very cogent. I hope you further explore how this factor endangers us on not just on our highways, but also in our politics and in the way we conduct our lives throughout America. We have become the “land of the free and the home of the stupid.” We now have a leader to drive us off the next cliff, or the one after.

  2. Stan

    Lots of smoke, but no fire. The correlation is weak, with plenty of counter-examples on both ends, and looks even worse in the middle. The explanations of the relevance of the correlation are nonsense, as some with high accident rates are fairly urban, and several with low rates are pretty rural. And many high accident states have rather aggressive traffic law enforcement, and vice versa.

    This is statistical masturbation… Two unrelated numbers that just happen to vaguely match up sometimes, which sheds no light on anything. There’s a great site called “spurious correlations” which offers numerous charts that correlate far better than these numbers, but which are obviously completely unrelated phenomenon. Take a look for yourself.

  3. Louis V. Lombardo

    More good information on fatalities by State is available in an excellent article in Forbes at http://www.forbes.com/sites/jensen/2017/02/01/states-have-legislative-amnesia-when-it-comes-to-life-saving-traffic-laws/#5c10e4fe3d6f

  4. Patricia Clark

    So I read this article and wondered what point you were trying to make? Then I saw you were from California, and I figured you “journalists” just have to find SOMETHING negative to say about President Trump and/or his supporters, whether it is true or has any significance at all. Why don’t you see how many drug overdoses and/or suicides occurred in blue states? Please find something more worthwhile to do with your time and stop trying to further the divide in this nation. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

  5. Louis V. Lombardo

    Again the public owes thanks to Fair Warning for focusing on an important problem facing Americans here at home. We are approaching recording America’s 4 Millionth fatality due to vehicle violence at a growing rate:

    * 100 deaths per average day due to vehicle violence.
    * 400 serious injuries (brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, burns, etc.) per day.
    * $2 Billion in losses per average day

    The need for bi-partisan support for safety is great. Humankind has more technologies to end crash deaths and serious injuries than ever before in history. We need a Vision Zero goal to put Americans on the road and bring them back again safely. See

  6. Myron Levin

    Myron Levin here, editor of FairWarning. Thanks for your comment, Mark, but I was surprised you read the piece as you did. We thought we made it pretty clear that non-voting factors, such as more travel on rural roads, probably account for higher death rates in red states.

  7. Mark

    Your article on highway traffic death rates being correlated to a political divide in the states is assinine. First, analysis of traffic crashes for low volume roads is highly erratic, and does not represent statically significant results. The problem has to do with sampling opportunity. Higher volume roads have more sample drivers, and thus have rates reflective of a higher statistical quality. Secondly, in most DOT’s the use of highway dollars is directly tied to future population estimates. The low volume roads don’t get desired, and sometimes needed, repair work. Inherent roadside safety isn’t tied to political affiliation of the driver. Lastly, your article suggests that speed is a determining factor in the crash rates. Speed has an effect in the severity of the crash, but not in the rates of crash occurrence. Please don’t spread bad or uninformed information. Your article dissuades tax dollars from being spent appropriately. One could say your article has killed people. But would that be correlation, or causation?

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