It’s the worst-case scenario: You get in your car to drive home, to work, or to the grocery store, but you never make it there. How common are fatal traffic accidents? Motor vehicle crashes claimed 32,675 lives in the U.S. in 2014 – around one person every 16 minutes. Although the country’s rate of traffic deaths per capita has been steadily declining since 1975, it’s clear that the current death toll is still too high.
To formulate a picture of deadly crashes over the past year, we analyzed data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). We also tackled some pressing questions about fatal accidents: Who are the most likely victims? When are the riskiest times and days to drive? Which states see the most crashes, and which highways are deadliest? We examined risk factors such as drugs, alcohol, and failure to use a seat belt. Keep reading for details about an issue that impacts every person on the road.
One Year of Fatal Crashes in 60 seconds
The graphic above maps fatal accidents across the country during the course of a single year. Red dots represent crashes that involved alcohol, green dots mean no alcohol was involved, and blue dots signify that alcohol status is unknown. You can see from the map that certain regions and certain months experience the highest number of fatal crashes.
Who’s Most at Risk in Fatal Crashes?
In deadly motor vehicle accidents, the person at the wheel is by far the most likely to be a victim. Drivers represent over 63% of deaths, while passengers comprise just over 18% of fatalities. Among people outside the vehicle, pedestrians are killed nearly seven times as often as bicyclists. The remaining .6% of other victims (not depicted above) include people in buildings, occupants of parked vehicles, people aboard trains or buses, and people on “personal conveyances.”
Riskiest Dates for Drivers
Based on 5 Years of Accident Reports …
If you’re concerned about safety, you might want to stay off the road during certain holidays: specifically Independence Day, New Year’s Day, and Labor Day. Over the past five years, these dates have seen an average of more than 100 traffic deaths annually. Additionally, two days in August (the 2 and the 27) are nearly as dangerous. The holidays see an uptick in travelers, not to mention parties and gatherings where people consume alcohol. Clearly, busy roads plus drivers under the influence add up to a deadly combination.
Riskiest Times to Drive
Which times, days, and months are the deadliest to be on the road? The riskiest times to drive are the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. hours, when roads are filled with commuters heading home after work. The safest times are generally the wee hours of the morning, which tend to see the fewest cars on the road. Saturday is the riskiest day to drive, followed by Friday and Sunday. Weekends are the most common times for people to consume alcohol before driving.
As for months, August is the deadliest, followed closely by July. Why? Various factors come into play: Summer road trips draw people onto the road for long distances and long periods of time. A higher number of teens are on the road because school is out. Additionally, summer parties and barbecues may mean more people are consuming alcohol before they get behind the wheel.
America’s Most Dangerous Highways
America’s longest and busiest highways are also among the country’s deadliest. More people perished on I-10, I-95, and I-40 than any other roadways. The leader for deadly crashes, I-10 is the country’s fourth-longest highway – it stretches 2,460 miles through eight states: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. One issue? Long stretches of I-10 without barriers sparked numerous crossover crashes that proved fatal.
The second-most-dangerous highway is I-95 – a 1,926-mile-long road that winds through 15 states, including Florida, North Carolina, and Maine. I-40, the third-longest in the country, which goes through eight states, comes in third for death toll. Surprisingly, I-90 – the longest highway in the country, at 3,102 miles – did not even make the top 10 deadliest list.
Most Dangerous States for Driving
Mapping the states with the highest death rate per capita yields some startling disparities. Wyoming is a particularly hazardous place for drivers – the state’s fatality rate of 25.7 per 100,000 people is more than seven times higher than that of least dangerous District of Columbia.
Wyoming is fairly rural and the least populous state in the country, which may lead to decreased emergency response times – a factor in fatalities. It’s also above the country average for drunk driving prevalence.
Mississippi, Montana, and New Mexico also rank on the high end for fatal crash rates, while the safest spots after Washington, D.C. are Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New York.
Drinking and Driving
How often do drunk driving and fatal accidents go hand in hand? Alcohol was a factor in at least 31% of the fatal crashes we examined. The most common blood alcohol level was .22% – more than 2.5 times the legal limit in most states. Young people are most at risk for crash involvement at all levels of BAC. In 2014, among people involved in fatal crashes, 3 out of 10 drivers with BAC levels of 0.08% or above were 21 to 24 years old.
Drugs and Driving
More than 1,900 (6%) of the traffic fatalities we reviewed were linked to drug use. When authorities ordered lab tests, the most common drug detected by far was marijuana – it was present in 900 fatal accidents, which represents nearly half of the total. The second-most-common substance, cocaine, was a factor in 241 fatalities. Amphetamines (involved in 224 fatalities) and methamphetamine (involved in 212 deaths) take third and fourth place.
Deadliest Types of Crashes
Of the crash fatalities we examined, 17,799 involved a vehicle hitting something other than a moving vehicle. Of these, 4,150 involved an impact with a pedestrian, 2,189 a collision with a standing tree, and 1,045 a vehicle hitting a curb. On the lower end, 261 were cars hitting mailboxes and 140 involved a collision with a live animal.
Over the past 10 years, Texas and Wisconsin had the highest numbers of deaths from collisions with animals. The most common animal was a deer, and the riskiest times were spring and fall, when animals move around more due to migration, mating, or hunting seasons.
Another 11,227 crash fatalities involved vehicles colliding with another moving vehicle. Among these, the most common types of impacts were collisions at an angle, front-to-front collisions, and front-to-rear crashes. Rear-to-rear collisions were the least common by far.
The Importance of Buckling Up
Every state in the U.S. requires primary or secondary seat belt use, except one: New Hampshire. However, on a national level, 45% of people killed in traffic accidents neglected to buckle up. Breaking down the statistics by state yields a poignant (and perhaps preventable) result: The state that experienced the most traffic deaths of unrestrained occupants was none other than New Hampshire. Montana and South Dakota tied for second place, followed by North Dakota, Mississippi, and Alabama.
Which state had the fewest deaths among unbuckled drivers and passengers? Oregon. The state saw a third as many unrestrained fatalities as No. 1 New Hampshire. New York; Washington, D.C.; California; and Delaware also fell on the low end.
Although fatalities from motor vehicle crashes have declined over time, our analysis reveals that there are still far too many people killed in traffic accidents in recent years. The biggest risk factors include neglecting to wear a seat belt (a factor in 45% of deaths), driving under the influence (in 31% of fatalities), and speeding (in 28% of deaths). Other things our study found:
- Drivers are most likely to be killed in fatal accidents.
- The deadliest times to be on the road are rush hour, weekends, and peak summer months.
- Holidays are particularly high risk - especially Independence Day, New Year's Day, and Labor Day.
- In deadly multi-vehicle accidents, angled impacts are most common, followed by head-on collisions.
- Wyoming has the most traffic fatalities per capita.
- New Hampshire has the most victims who were unrestrained.
Increase your safety on the road by taking a few simple steps: Never drink and drive, always buckle your seat belt, don’t drive distracted, and stick to the speed limit.
We used the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s latest data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) to analyze and chart fatal accidents in every state.
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