Crashes are a fact of American driving life, but none of us hits the road anticipating tragedy. When we pass a wreck, we can’t help but speculate about causes and conditions: What happened to turn a typical drive deadly?
In our previous project, America’s Deadliest Driving Counties, we documented the prevalence of fatal accidents in each county and state in the U.S. This time, we chose to delve deeper, investigating the circumstances of each fatal crash occurring between 2009 and 2013. Using the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatal Accident Reporting System, we’ve aggregated data on fatal accidents by state, studying the causes that contribute to these driving disasters.
Deadly Driving? Frighteningly Familiar
The map above presents the single driver behavior that caused the highest number of fatal crashes in each state. The dominant factor? Failure to stay in the proper lane. At high speeds, even the slightest contact across lane lines can translate to deadly impact. Failure to yield the right of way takes the top spot in six states, suggesting again that even common, casual oversights can end in the loss of life.
Indeed, with the exception of reckless or careless driving and driving on the wrong side of the road, these leading factors are familiar errors. Their definitions are self-explanatory, aside from “operating without required equipment,” which covers infractions such as driving with bad breaks, not using a seatbelt, or riding a motorcycle without a helmet. These things happen every day. Despite our tendency to conceive collisions in starkly dramatic terms, it seems fatalities aren’t always a function of extraordinary circumstances.
States That Lead the List
The map above demonstrates the leading cause within each state. We took the total number of crashes associated with each of these causes by state and divided that number by each state’s population to arrive at a per-capita metric for accurate comparison. Arkansas is home to the most deadly reckless drivers, but Indiana saw the most-deaths-per-capita results from road rage. Wyoming suffers most from drivers drifting out of their assigned lane unintentionally; Delaware was No. 1 for deaths resulting from changing lanes unsafely. The common thread for these category leaders? Large, relatively rural territories where thinly distributed law enforcement struggles to encourage safe driving. Speaking of law enforcement: What might explain South Dakota’s unsurpassed number of deaths resulting from police pursuits? It’s hard to say, but maybe the open roads of the Mount Rushmore State tempt drivers to race to escape.
In comparing per-capita rates of drunk driving fatalities, we see the most trouble in states where driving is a necessary part of going out on the town. Drinkers are hard-pressed to catch a cab in North Dakota, let alone use public transportation. It seems many fail to appoint the all-important designated driver and imagine they’ll be able to tackle uncongested roads intoxicated. The concentration of related deaths is the tragic result.
By contrast, places with more distinctly urban profiles, where drinkers encounter more travel options, have far better per-capita rates. The exception to this rural rule? Utah, where severely restrictive liquor laws are in place and a large Mormon population abstains entirely. Explore our interactive graphic below to get a precise view of each state’s drunk driving crashes per 100,000 residents.
Again, these crashes are caused most in rural and thinly populated areas. Speeding is particularly appealing to drivers moving along the highways of Montana and Wyoming, where the road can stretch straight ahead for miles, unobstructed by traffic. New Yorkers, infamous for speeding in NYC, actually experience the third fewest deaths per capita in this category. That’s probably attributable to the relatively low speed limits the state sets in the first place. Even if drivers go 10 over the limit on a 55 m.p.h. highway, they’re proceeding at a pace most of the nation’s highways observe anyway. See our interactive map below for a more specific breakdown of our findings.
These maps are specific comparisons that determine which of the two causes is more prevalent in each state. These maps focus on environmental conditions, whereas the images above concern driver choices that lead to deadly outcomes. We all know inclement weather increases our risk on the road. But which of these factors proves deadliest in your state? Our results aren’t as predictable as typical weather patterns might suggest.
Whether you live in a densely populated city or relatively quiet rural area, it’s possible you’ll encounter the causes of deadly crashes on your local roads. It doesn’t take extreme conditions or intentional recklessness behind the wheel for tragedy to strike. Scary as it sounds, the factors to blame for the worst outcomes on the road are pretty common. While they don’t always end in a fatal crash, it’s important to remember that they very well could.
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