Commuting to work, making a grocery run, or road-tripping across the country on vacation – driving is a fact of life for most Americans.Yet driving is also one of the most dangerous things we do every day.It claims thousands of lives every year and changes even more lives through injury and loss. In 2015, an estimated 36,300 people lost their lives, and another 4.4 million were injured on America’s roadways.
Of course, not every county, state, and region is created equal. While one state might see a frightening increase in fatalities, another might be improving its roadways, adding guardrails, stepping up enforcement of speed limits, and becoming safer over time.
To pinpoint which states and counties are the most dangerous (and which are safest) for drivers, we analyzed more than 710,000 accident records spanning 20 years from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). The results are compiled below in some simple-to-understand graphics. Read on to find out how your region compares.
The Most Dangerous Counties in the U.S.
Based on 20 years of fatal accident data, the safest place to take to the road is Bristol County, Rhode Island, which also happens to be the least populated county in the state. Other safer-than-usual spots to go for a drive? Suffolk County, Massachusetts; Cass County, North Dakota; and Hennepin County, Minnesota.
As for the most dangerous, La Paz County, Arizona, ranks as the deadliest despite being the second least populated county in Arizona. It’s followed in the fatality rankings by Tunica County, Missouri; Leon County, Texas; and Lowndes County, Alabama.
Interestingly, none of the top five safest counties or the top five deadliest counties in our report last year made this year’s top five lists. That is, in part, because this year we excluded counties with fewer than 10,000 residents from the rankings.
When we took at look at the most recent year of data, without excluding any counties, this is what we found...
Texas dominated the list of deadliest counties, based on the most recent year of available data. It claimed nine of the 20 spots, including the top four. One reason is the sparse population of many rural counties in the Lone Star State.
The Deadliest States in the U.S.
The Northeast dominates the top spots on our list of safest states, with Massachusetts boasting the lowest rate of traffic fatalities over the past 20 years. The District of Columbia and New York are also commendably safe. Good public transit is one feature that may play a role. Another factor may be each state’s default speed limit on major highways. The Northeast typically enforces top speeds of 65 mph, while the South and West generally enforce 70–75 mph.
The five most dangerous states are comparatively rural and sparsely populated. Mississippi, Wyoming, and Montana lead the nation in fatal accidents per capita. With many long stretches of thinly patrolled two-lane roads, the temptation to speed can have tragic consequences and help may be slow to arrive.
The Scariest States for Drivers, by Year
Choose a year above to see which states ranked high or low for traffic fatalities during that calendar year. Then, hover your mouse over each state to see its fatality rate per 10,000 people.
In the most recent year represented (2014), Wyoming (which was the second deadliest state in the previous year) took home the “most dangerous” title, with 2.6 deaths per 10,000 people.
On the safe side, D.C. leads the pack with just .3 deaths per 10,000, followed by New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island in a three-way tie for second place with just .5 deaths per 10,000 people.
A Decrease in Fatal Road Crashes
According to our data, the good news is that fatal accidents are on the decline nationally. There were an average of 1.59 deaths per 10,000 people across the U.S. in 1995, dropping to just 1.02 in 2014.
The largest drop happened between 2006 and 2011. The Department of Transportation believes that – at least in part – the economic downturn had something to do with it, leaving more young people (the demographic with crash rates that dropped most dramatically) unemployed and thus driving less.
Rising (& Dropping) Death Rates, by State
Of course, risk doesn’t stand still. A state with good marks one year can get bad marks the next – and vice versa.
Between 2013 and 2014, our data show that some states have become safer by a large margin, while others have fallen in safety rankings by a lot. The states with the largest increases in fatalities were Wyoming and Alaska. Following in their wake were Utah and New Mexico, with smaller but still significant increases in their death tolls.
On the other side of that road, Vermont just got a whole lot safer for drivers – with a 36.2% drop in deaths on the road. And New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and West Virginia weren’t far behind, each ranking as significantly safer than they were the year before.
Interestingly, Vermont also saw a significant drop in crime rates in 2014, so it was a good year to live in that haven of fall colors and maple syrup.
The Long View: Changes Over a 20-Year Period
While data over time are useful, long-term information can provide even more interesting insights. Which is why we compared stats from 1994 with 2014. Some of the results were startling. Despite an overall decrease in danger across the U.S., North Dakota, Texas, Delaware, and Wyoming had an increase in fatal crashes over that 20-year period. All other states have become safer, with the District of Columbia, Minnesota, and Vermont experiencing the largest decreases – 66.7%, 44.1%, and 42.9% respectively – in traffic fatalities over that same period.
Staying Safe on the Roads
Even with a 2013 to 2014 decline in overall deadly traffic accidents, driving isn’t something to take lightly. Which is why we recommend always obeying speed limits, buckling up, and keeping kids in proper car seats. Of course, you should never text while driving, get behind the wheel after drinking, or roll through stop signs. Stay safe out there.
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 to 2014. We collected it all, cataloguing locations for more than 710,000 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. We used the U.S. Census Bureau’s 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, California, has seen 200 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 13,153 deadly crashes, but its population is north of 10 million. In this view, Inyo’s driving conditions seem far more likely to result in death, though far fewer people are exposed to them.
NOTE: If you're a journalist interested in covering this project, we encourage you to use any of the graphics included above. We just ask that you attribute Auto Insurance Center fairly in your coverage and provide a link to this page so that your audience can learn more about our work. If you'd like to discuss this project, or any of our other research, reach out to us at [email protected]