When it comes to U.S. traffic fatalities, coastal states have the lowest rates, according to a new study by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. By contrast, Montana, North Dakota and a number of Southern states have the highest rates.
UMTRI's July 2014 study by professor Michael Sivak is called "Road Safety in the Individual U.S. States: Current Status and Recent Changes." It compared traffic fatality rates in every U.S. state plus the District of Columbia between 2005 and 2012, the last available year of data. Taken as a whole, the data gives a snapshot of traffic fatalities — which claimed 33,561 lives in 2012 — across a broad spectrum of America.Nearly all states have reduced overall traffic fatalities significantly between 2005 and 2012, a result of highway fatalities dropping 22.9 percent over the same span, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Still, there's a big statistical difference between states with high-traffic fatalities and those with low ones. Here's UMTRI's analysis of the data by population:
You could argue that automotive usage affects these numbers. After all, six of the top 10 states occupy the Boston-D.C. corridor, where established public-transit systems give residents a viable alternative to cars.
The East Coast produced four of the top five cities rated best for public transit in 2014 from Seattle-based Walk Score, a company that rates locales by walkability. A 2011 study on public transit by the Brookings Institute wasn't quite so East Coast heavy, but the metro areas with the least public-transit availability sprawled mostly across the South — a region with the highest per-capita traffic fatalities in UMTRI's list.
Still, the amount of time behind the wheel doesn't affect the data as much as you might think. UMTRI also ranked the data by vehicle-miles driven, which breaks down fatalities as a ratio of how much people drive. Check out the list:
The variance between the two UMTRI lists isn't high. Seven states plus the District of Columbia ranked among the top 10 for both lists: California, Connecticut, D.C., Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington. On the other side, seven states made the bottom 10 on both lists: Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina and West Virginia.
Taken as a whole, the two groups illustrate two distinct Americas. Start with wealth: All seven states and the District of Columbia in the top group rank within the top 20 states for median household income, according to U.S. Census data from 2010 to 2012. Meanwhile, six of the seven states in the bottom group are among the 20 poorest states in terms of household income.
Wealthier Americans can afford newer cars with better crashworthiness and improved safety features; poorer Americans often cannot. Does income correlate with driving behavior, too? Not necessarily. A 2011 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found poorer Americans don't necessarily drive drunk any more often than their wealthier counterparts. But seat belt usage has been correlated to wealth, and belt use for the top group in the UMTRI report averaged 88 percent in 2012, according to NHTSA. For the bottom group, it averaged 81.5 percent.
What's more, when crashes happen, not all response is equal. Five of the top group's seven states and D.C. rank in the top half of U.S. states for access to emergency care, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians' 2014 rankings. Four of the bottom group's seven states, meanwhile, rank in the bottom half of states in the ACEP report.
UMTRI's Sivak cautioned against attributing higher fatality rates to just one or two reasons. "There are many other factors at play here," he said in an email. "Examples include speed limits and their enforcement, enforcement of no driving while intoxicated [laws], enforcement of driver distractions (e.g., cellphone use), age composition of drivers, quality of graduated licensing, rural vs. urban composition, road topology, proportion of driving done on limited-access highways" and more.
Income isn't the sole driver, as UMTRI's data shows some examples of dramatic improvement among lower-income states. Mississippi, ranked a last-place 51st in household income by the U.S. Census, reduced traffic fatalities per vehicle-mile driven by 31.8 percent and fatalities per capita by 38.8 percent between 2005 and 2012. Missouri — ranked 35th — reduced the figures 34.0 percent and 36.7 percent, respectively.