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Traffic deaths: A surprising dimension of the red state-blue state divide

November 20, 2012
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Traffic fatalities by state

The nation’s red and blue states often are miles apart in social attitudes and, of course, political outlook.

It turns out that they also divide into distinct camps when it comes to a grimmer measure — fatal traffic accidents.

To an extent that mystifies safety experts and other observers, federal statistics show that people in red states are more likely to die in road crashes. The least deadly states – those with the fewest crash deaths per 100,000 people – overwhelmingly are blue.

In the absence of formal definitions for red or blue states, we labeled as red the states that favored Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and as blue those that supported the reelection of President Obama.

The 10 states with the highest fatality rates all were red, while all but one of the 10 lowest-fatality states were blue. What’s more, the place with the nation’s lowest fatality rate, while not a state, was the very blue District of Columbia.

Massachusetts was lowest among the states, with 4.79 road deaths per 100,000 people. By contrast, red Wyoming had a fatality rate of 27.46 per 100,000.

When shown the pattern, author Thomas Frank — who has examined the nation’s political culture in such books as “What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America” – called it “amazing.”

“This is someplace where you would not expect to see a partisan divide,” Frank said.

Even the former federal auto safety researcher who brought the numbers to FairWarning’s attention, Louis V. Lombardo, couldn’t explain them. “It may be something we don’t have a definitive answer for,” he said.

Some observers offered the possible explanation that blue states tend to adopt stronger safety laws, while red states opt for looser regulation, presumably leading to more fatalities. For example, red Texas last month opened a toll road with a speed limit of 85 mph, the nation’s highest.

But the sweeping generalization doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

For one thing, federal pressure in many cases has prodded states to enforce similar safety rules, such as seat belt requirements. And states don’t always act along predictable liberal-versus-conservative lines. As FairWarning has reported, blue Michigan in April repealed its requirement that all motorcyclists wear helmets, while some states with the toughest helmet laws are in the Deep South.

Traffic safety experts generally suggest that a mix of factors accounts for the varying rates. Possible variables include access to top-level trauma centers, weather conditions and how much of a state is rural, because rural residents may drive longer distances on narrow, winding roads. Lower income and education levels may also contribute to higher death rates.

“No matter how you look at fatal crash rates, there are some important things that explain why states are different, and they’re not political explanations,” said Anne McCartt, the senior vice president for research with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Complicating things further is the possibility that deaths per 100,000 residents isn’t the best yardstick for comparisons. Fatalities per total miles traveled, some experts say, is better.

For his part, Lombardo says he’s less interested in the causes of the state differences than in reducing the toll of U.S. traffic deaths, estimated at 32,885 in 2010.

For instance, he advocates getting crash victims medical treatment more quickly by expanding air ambulance services.

The key question, Lombardo added, is “how do we move the people, and [have] the people then move their politicians, to do the right thing?”

If he needs evidence that at least some parts of the country can do better, Lombardo can point to the striking red-blue divide in the accompanying chart.

About FairWarning

FairWarning ( is a nonprofit, online news organization focused on issues of safety, health and government and business accountability.

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More Than Likely Coincidence

Rex Butler
November 21, 2012
I'm guessing the same comparison using the criteria of where four leaf clovers were found or states with double-jointed citizens might garner the same results. It's likely a statistical anomaly.

Risk communication consultant

Peter Sandman
November 21, 2012
Aren't the red states less urban than the blue states? And don't people drive faster and further in less urban areas? And aren't traffic fatalities likelier when people are driving faster and further? Why would anyone find it surprising that there are more traffic deaths per 100,000 population in Wyoming (where the few people who live there hurtle for hundreds of miles on interstates to visit their neighbors) than in D.C. (where people crawl on city streets or take the bus or subway)? I doubt this has much to do with political values or safety regulation.

Tom Cecich
November 21, 2012
Determine the rate by dividing fatalities by the number of miles driven versus the number of people. Many people in large cities don't drive - in fact they don't own cars. You can draw no conclusions without looking at that data. Misleading study findings based on inadequate data. I am surprised the "experts" quoted in the study couldn't figure that out.

Daniel Lambert
November 21, 2012
This conclusion is absolutely ridiculous. I can't believe you published this. There is no statistical validity to this so called "safety" article. The real bias that is neatly disguised is the statement that "Lower income and education levels may also contribute to higher death rates." Wow! All Romney supporters sure fit that category! Of course, all us Southerners are much dumber than those safe driving liberals. I question why the "safety experts" comments were not more challenging. The unqualified author of this "safety" article should not have been given the space in your newsletter.

Industrial Hygienist

Roberta Stone
November 21, 2012
Why not compare the number of cars per household vs miles of road vs average number of miles travelled to work or to general destinations such as for grocery shopping, etc? This is a purely political comparison and smacks of someone trying to prove that red states are worse places to live. If that is the case, why is it that red states have an ever increasing population "escaping" from overbearing governments in blue states.

Phil Glendening
November 27, 2012
One statistic not noted is that the Blue States had 1124 more deaths then the Red States. I would like to know how much these statistics would change if the criteria was using licensed drivers only. There many people that live in metro-plexes that do not drive and many who have never driven in comparison to the more rural states. Sounds more like political hocus pocus to me. I'm supprised that you would publish such an unscientific article.


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