The Law vs. Loss of Life
Driving can be a very different experience depending on where you are in the United States. Each state has its own laws regarding everything from speed limit to driving age. How do varying laws affect road safety in every state? Is there a correlation between the rate of fatal accidents and state driving laws for speeding, teenage drivers, seat belt regulations, and DUI penalties?
To explore whether states with stricter laws experience better safety outcomes, we compared each state’s laws with the latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). Read on to see what we discovered about the intriguing relationship between state laws and road safety.
Speeding Laws Across the United States
We examined rural and urban speed limits in each state to determine how restrictive a state’s laws are: Least restrictive indicates a rural or urban limit of over 70 mph, while most restrictive indicates an urban speed limit of 55 mph. We then compared the speed limits with the rate of auto accident fatalities per 100,000 residents in each state in the graphic below.
Each state has unique engineering, traffic levels, and road conditions, so it makes sense that speed limits differ. The states with the least restrictive laws – Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Texas, and Maine – often have long stretches of rural roads. The locations with the strictest laws include several states in the Northeast, three Midwestern states, two Southern states, two Western states, and D.C. Many of these areas are more heavily populated.
Increasing speed limits in certain states has fueled debate. Advocates insist that allowing people to travel at higher speeds actually makes the roads safer, prompting smoother traffic flow and even fewer accidents. However, many safety experts caution that high speeds can lead to deadlier crashes that even today’s vehicle safety features can’t handle.
Deadly Crashes and Speeding Laws
Do states with higher speed limits experience higher rates of speeding-related fatalities? Tellingly, Wyoming – which has some of the most lenient speeding laws – has the highest rate of speeding-related car crash fatalities. Other states with high death rates (North Dakota, South Carolina, New Mexico, Montana, and North Carolina) have mildly restrictive speeding laws. Texas, in seventh place, has the least restrictive laws.
The surprises? South Dakota and Idaho have some of the most lenient speeding laws, but they rank only 17th and 24th, respectively, for fatality rates. And Delaware has some of the most restrictive speeding laws, but it is still 11th in the nation for speeding-related crash fatalities. On the same note, Alabama and Missouri rank eighth and ninth for deaths, although both states have moderately restrictive laws.
However, looking at posted speed limits in each state doesn’t tell the whole story. Numerous factors can contribute to speeding-related crashes, including road conditions, weather, visibility, and traffic. A road that’s snowy, foggy, or packed with sharp curves can be treacherous regardless of the state speed limit.
Teen Driving Laws in Every State
Next, we looked at the teen driving laws across the country. The strictest states don’t award full driving privileges until a person is 18 years old, and the most lenient states grant full driving privileges to people who are 16. As with speeding laws, rural Western states – in this case, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota – have among the most lenient teen driving laws.
Among every age group, teens have the highest risk of being involved in fatal accidents. Why? Two key factors: immaturity and a lack of driving experience. According to the NHTSA, implementing Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) can lead to a 20- to 50-percent decrease in accidents involving young and inexperienced drivers. Below, we’ll compare teen driving laws with crash statistics to get an up-to-date snapshot.
Teen Driving Fatalities and Licensing Laws
Vehicle accidents are the No. 1 cause of death for teens in the United States today. There is a clear correlation between teen driving deaths with state licensing laws: Overwhelmingly, the states with the highest rates of teen driving fatalities per 100,000 residents also have less stringent restrictions for teen drivers. Wyoming, the state with the most teen driving deaths, has mildly restrictive laws. Second-place Montana and third-place North Dakota have among the most lenient laws.
West Virginia and Tennessee are the only states in the top 10 for teen driving death rate that do not have the least restrictive or mildly restrictive laws.
The states with the strictest and second-strictest laws have lower rates of teen driving deaths. One exception: Minnesota, which has mildly restrictive laws, ranks in the bottom 10 for teen driving fatalities.
Restraint Laws Across the Nation
Laws surrounding seat belt use differ from state to state. Currently, 34 states have primary seat belt laws, which means drivers and front seat passengers who fail to buckle up can receive a ticket, regardless of any other driving offenses. However, in 15 states, secondary seat belt laws dictate that people who don’t buckle up can only get a ticket if they’ve committed another infraction too.
Punishments can differ greatly: In the toughest states, seat belt fines can top $75. In the most lenient states, fines can be $25, $15, or even $10. Not including administrative fees or court costs, the states that with the largest fines are Oregon ($130) and Maryland ($83). According to the CDC, states with secondary (or no) seat belt laws average a 9 percent lower rate of seat belt use than those in states with primary laws.
Seat Belt Laws and Restraint-Related Deaths
Next, we compared each state’s seat belt penalties with its rate of restraint-related fatalities per 100,000 residents. (Restraint in this case includes a seat belt or helmet.) According to the CDC, seat belt usage can cut accident-related deaths and injuries in half.
The top 15 states for restraint-related crash fatalities also have the lowest penalties for failure to buckle up. Again, Wyoming tops the list for accident deaths. Mississippi, Montana, and North Dakota also rank high for fatalities relating to a lack of restraint.
Eight of the 10 states with the lowest restraint-related fatal crash death rates have the most restrictive or moderately restrictive seat belt penalties. The two states with the most stringent seat belt penalties – Oregon and Maryland – rank 42nd and 44th for fatality rates.
However, laws are not the only factor related to seat belt use. According to the CDC, adults who reside in rural areas are 10 percent less apt to use seat belts than adults living in suburban spots and cities. Education, family habits, and other factors can play a role.
DUI Laws Across the U.S.
Finally, we examined DUI laws across the country. In every state, driving with a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 or higher constitutes a crime. Forty-two states institute license suspension for drivers convicted of a DUI, even on the first offense. Penalties may also vary depending on drivers’ willingness to submit to chemical tests. Depending on the state, an offender’s license can be suspended anywhere from a week to an entire year.
Among every state, Georgia, New Mexico, New York, Louisiana, and Tennessee come down hardest on drivers convicted of DUIs, issuing a one-year license suspension (however, in New Mexico, the penalty drops to six months for drivers under 21). Arkansas, Illinois, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, and Montana all issue six-month suspensions. (However, in Michigan, the suspension can increase to a year for drivers with a high BAC level.)
The state with the least restrictive penalties is West Virginia, where offenders receive seven-day license suspensions. In Kansas, South Carolina, North Carolina, and South Dakota, the suspension period is 30 days, and in Maryland it is 45.
Along with license suspensions, every state relies on some form of ignition interlock law. This means drivers convicted of DUIs may be ordered to install interlocks that perform a breath analysis and shut down the car engine if they detect alcohol. In some states, ignition interlocks are mandatory for all offenders. Additionally, some states impound and confiscate offenders’ vehicles.
BAC Laws and Deadly Alcohol-Related Crash Deaths
How do states’ varying DUI laws compare with their rate of alcohol-fueled accidents? Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota topped the list for alcohol-related crash deaths per 100,000 residents. These state’s penalties vary: Montana suspends offenders’ licenses for six months, and Wyoming and North Dakota for three months.
On the other end, Washington, D.C., New York, and New Jersey have the lowest rate of alcohol-related fatal crashes. Washington, D.C., suspends DUI offenders’ licenses for 90 days, New York for a year, and New Jersey for three months (although the suspension can increase in the case of high BAC levels).
It’s not clear whether a state’s suspension length affects the prevalence of alcohol-related accidents. However, other factors play a role, including sobriety checkpoints, mass media campaigns, alcohol screening, and intervention. Each state’s culture and its public transportation and walkability can be a factor too. For instance, top spot Montana has a long history of leniency toward drunk driving as well as long stretches of rural road and limited public transit options.
As our analysis reveals, in many cases, the stringency of state laws may affect a state’s rate of accident-related fatalities. Many of the states with the highest speed limits, fewest restrictions on teen drivers, and most lenient seat belt laws also have some of the highest rates of crash fatalities.
However, it’s clear that other factors come into play too. For instance, many states home to urban centers with top-notch public transit systems – including D.C., New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California – rank among the lowest for fatal car crash rates.
While you can’t affect your own state’s laws, on a personal level, you can improve safety for you, your passengers, and others on the road. Always buckle up (and insist your passengers follow suit); stick to the speed limit; and never get behind the wheel after consuming alcohol. Additionally, if you are a parent of teens, talk to them frequently about safe driving habits.