The American landscape has never lacked for variety; every day, drivers across the country encounter vastly different conditions and circumstances. But from the winding roads of northern California to the gridlock of New York City, which areas prove most dangerous – and deadly – for drivers? We gathered data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) to track where fatal crashes occurred over a 20-year period. When we indexed these stats against the number of people living in each county and state, we arrived at some stunning conclusions. Check out our results: You could be driving in a danger zone without even knowing it.
Counting by County:
It’s hard to miss the prevalence of dangerous counties in the Lone Star State. Combining low populations with a high number of fatal crashes, three Texas counties placed in our ranking of the five most dangerous nationwide. America’s most dangerous county overall, Kenedy County, is home to just over 400 residents, according the latest census – but 43 fatal crashes have taken place there over the last 20 years, resulting in a staggering per capita rate. Currently, all of Kenedy’s traffic is funneled through its lone thruway, U.S. Highway 77, where residents and passersby alike have encountered disaster. Texas lawmakers have highlighted highway safety concerns during recent efforts to improve the state's major roads through federal funding – the plan includes major reconstruction along U.S. 77.
Relative to the West, the East Coast seems to be a haven of safety. Placid vacation destination Nantucket, MA, takes our safest spot; speed limits on the island never go higher than 45 mph. The Bronx, one of New York City’s boroughs, may seem an unlikely inclusion in the top 5, given the city’s ruthless driving reputation. But no matter New Yorkers’ proclivity for fender benders, city driving often precludes deathly speeds. NYC has even strengthened regulations of late, lowering the default speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph in November 2014. The Bronx is a good reflection of our study’s counter-intuitive results: While drivers are often intimidated by urban traffic, our per capita numbers suggest they’re far more likely to encounter roadway tragedies elsewhere.
To test this conclusion, explore our interactive visualization of the results:
And the Safest State Is…
Despite this winter’s onslaught of snow, there’s some good news for Massachusetts drivers! Their state took the top spot for safety, keeping its number of fatal accidents admirably low relative to its population. More generally, the Northeast proved particularly safe, despite contending with inclement winter weather that Southern danger zones don’t. Another factor that can’t be overstated is each state’s default speed limit on major highways: The Northeast typically enforces top speeds of 65 mph, while the South and West enforce 70–75 mph. When a quick stop is required to avoid a collision, that difference matters.
Given the rural nature of the five most dangerous states, it seems localized resources can prove influential in reducing fatal crashes, especially in terms of legislation and enforcement. On long stretches of loosely maintained and thinly patrolled roads, the temptation to speed can reap deadly outcomes, and help may be slow to reach the injured parties once an accident takes place.
Take a look at the interactive map below to see how your state matches up:
FARS classifies a deadly crash as any incident in which a vehicle’s motion causes a fatality. The database offers data on the precise location of these fatal accidents from 1994–2013. We collected it all, cataloguing locations for a total of 714,956 fatal accidents that occurred during that time. Then, we identified the state and county in which each accident took place, plotting the prevalence of deadly crashes by area.
These raw totals seemed to indicate that urban environments were excessively dangerous. But to arrive at a more accurate reflection of the relative danger among areas, we elected to present these results per capita, using the US Census Bureau's 2013 population totals at the state and county level. By dividing the number of crashes by a given area’s population, we arrived at vastly more informative results. If we had presented the raw numbers instead, more populous areas would have appeared more dangerous by default.
For example: Inyo County, CA has seen 218 fatal crashes over the last 20 years, with a population of roughly 18,500 people. By contrast, Los Angeles County has seen a total of 13,488 deadly crashes, but its population is north of 10,000,000. In this view, Inyo’s driving conditions seem far more likely to result in death, though far fewer people are exposed to them.
When we think of intimidating driving scenarios, the crush of urban traffic looms large in our minds. But this project’s results suggest that rural environments are actually cause for greater concern. When you combine high speeds, varied terrain, and limited local resources for infrastructure and enforcement, disaster can ensue. Before getting on the road, think twice about the area around you before deciding if caution is required – it never hurts to play it safe.
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