Following the release of new FARS data in September 2016, we've updated this page to reflect the latest information possible. The revisions reflected in the content of this page represent the latest, most accurate data made available through the NHTSA's FARS database. This project was intended to encourage safety and responsibility on the road – and we hope that the updated information better serves that purpose.
- The Team at Auto Insurance Center
Whether it’s commuting to work, making a grocery run, or taking a road trip across the country, driving is a fact of life for most Americans. However, driving is also one of the most dangerous things we do every day. Every year, driving claims thousands of lives and changes countless more through injury and loss. In 2015, an estimated 38,300 people lost their lives, and another 4.4 million were seriously injured on America’s roadways.
To pinpoint which states and counties are the safest and most dangerous for drivers, we analyzed more than 777,000 fatal accident records in the last 20 years from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). Read on to find out how your state or county compares.
The Most Dangerous Counties in the U.S.
Based on the data, the safest place to take to the road is Arlington County, Virginia – also considered one of the richest counties in America. Other safer-than-usual spots to go for a drive? Bethel, Alaska; Broomfield County, Colorado; and Bronx County, New York.
On the other end of the spectrum, La Paz County, Arizona ranks as the most dangerous county for fatal car accidents. It’s followed by Tunica County, Mississippi; Lowndes County, Alabama; and Leon County, Texas.
Notably, none of the five safest counties on the 2014 list remain on this year’s list; however, the top five most deadly counties remain the same (with Lowndes County overtaking Leon County for traffic fatalities in 2015).
U.S. Counties That Had the Greatest Number of Traffic Fatalities
Small counties, like Kiowa in Colorado, placed relatively high on our top 20 deadliest counties list. Other smaller counties found in Texas and Nebraska also dominated the list of deadliest counties, based on the most recent year of available data. They claimed 8 of the 20 spots. One reason are the sparse populations of many rural counties in these states.
The Deadliest States in the U.S.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the top five safest states for driving are all in the Northeast region, with Massachusetts boasting the lowest rate of traffic fatalities in the past 20 years. The District of Columbia and New York are also commendably safe. Good public transportation is one feature that may play a role. Another factor may be the default speed limit on major highways in each state. The Northeast typically enforces top speeds of 55 or 65 miles per hour on urban and rural interstates respectively, while states in the South and West generally enforce top speeds of 70 to 75 miles per hour.
The five most dangerous states are comparatively rural and sparsely populated. Mississippi, Wyoming, and Montana lead the nation in fatal accidents per capita. Rural states, like Wyoming, have manylong stretches of thinly patrolled two-lane roads, and the temptation to speed can have tragic consequences.
The Scariest States for Drivers, by Year
To see which states ranked high or low for traffic fatalities in a given year, choose a year. Hover your mouse over each state to see the traffic fatality rate per 10,000 residents.
Wyoming was the most dangerous state for drivers in 2015, with 2.5 vehicle deaths per 10,000 residents. It was also the deadliest state in 2014 and the second deadliest in 2012.
As the safest state, D.C. only had 0.3 vehicle deaths per 10,000 residents in 2015, followed by Rhode Island (0.4), Massachusetts (0.5), New York (0.6), and New Jersey (0.6).
A Decrease in Fatal Road Crashes
The good news is that fatal car accidents have been on the decline nationally in the past 20 years. In 1995, there were an average of 1.59 deaths per 10,000 residents, while in 2015, this rate dropped to 1.09 deaths.
The largest drop happened between 2007 and 2009. According to the Department of Transportation, this drop coincides with the economic downturn of 2008, when people began to cut down on discretionary travel because of unemployment.
Unfortunately, we saw a partial reversal of this trend in 2015, when the highest number of fatalities occurred since 2009. Last year, unemployment fell to just over 5.3 percent – the lowest level since April 2008 – meaning that more people were able to afford being on the road.
Rising and Dropping Vehicle Death Rates, by State
Between 2014 and 2015, some states became safer by a large margin, while other states dramatically fell in safety. The states with the greatest increase in risk in 2015 were Vermont and Oregon, with their death tolls rising 25 percent and 29.5 percent respectively. Following in their wake were Washington and Georgia, which both had significant increases in their vehicle death tolls.
On the other side of that road, New Mexico became one of the safest states for drivers – with a 22 percent drop in fatal car accidents. Rhode Island, Alaska, and Kansas also experienced fewer fatalities due to car accidents.
The Big Picture: Changes Over a 20-Year Period
Comparing the percentage change in fatal vehicle accidents from 1995 to 2015, North Dakota, by far, had the greatest increase (77 percent) in fatal crashes in the last 20 years. South Carolina, Texas, Florida, Montana, Delaware, and Nevada also saw an increase in traffic fatalities.
In this time, all other states became safer, with D.C., Vermont, and Iowa showing the largest decreases in fatal accidents – roughly 60 percent, 46 percent, and 39 percent respectively.
Staying Safe On the Roads
Driving isn’t something that should ever be taken lightly, especially in states like North Dakota, with its substantial fatality increase in the last 20 years, or Vermont, with its substantial increase over the last year. Always obey speed limits, buckle up, and keep children in proper car seats. Of course, 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 2015. We collected it all, cataloging locations for more than 777,000 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 levels. 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 nearly 200 fatal crashes over the last 20 years, with a population of roughly 18,500 people. By contrast, Los Angeles County has seen almost 13,000 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]