When you think of dangerous places to drive, you might think of California's sprawling freeways or New York's infamous side streets. You might also think of rush-hour traffic in some of America's most congested cities — and the irate commuter stuck in gridlock traffic.
So, it might come as a surprise to learn the top 10 most dangerous states for drivers are chock-full of rural routes and country roads. And based on our analysis of 4 states, speeding — even more so than distracted driving — still tops the list of dangerous driving behaviors.
At Esurance, we're working to make insurance surprisingly painless. A huge part of that is helping our customers get back on the road following an accident. But an equally important part is educating drivers about the risks on the road and arming them with the tools and info they need to stay safe and avoid accidents.
To that end, we analyzed data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to see which states are most dangerous for drivers and which are seeing road safety improve.
Are America's roads getting more dangerous?
Before looking at the details on a state level, we thought it was important to understand how America's roads fare overall. Our roads have experienced a 13% increase in crash fatalities between 2013 and 2017. That's unsettling. But a slight decrease in fatalities between 2016 and 2017 could indicate that safety features in our cars could finally be contributing to safer roads. At least we can hope!
So why the increase in fatalities? A closer look at the data revealed that some states have actually seen fatality rates decrease. So we wanted to understand which states are contributing most to the national increase and which are paving the way for safer roads.
The most dangerous states are largely rural
When we look at the states with the highest crash fatality rates, a common theme is clear: from Mississippi to Montana, the places atop this ranking are full of rural stretches. This finding jives with other traffic safety research suggesting rural roads tend to be more dangerous than urban ones.
That's not to say the states that top the "most dangerous" list don't have large cities and urban areas. But it's interesting to note that we don't see states known for their large cities and urban sprawl at the top of the list.
So what makes rural roads more dangerous?
Local law enforcement is stretched thin.
In some rural places, just a few police officers are tasked with patrolling miles of varied terrain. In top-ranked Mississippi, for example, police sometimes struggle to monitor the state's patchwork of rural roads. As a result, drunk and distracted driving, along with other driving violations, are common.
Speed limits are hazardously high.
In city centers, speed is often limited to just 45 miles per hour. But with fewer obstacles and drivers, limits outside the city are much higher. Take second-ranked Wyoming, for example. With a speed limit of 80 miles per hour on many of the state's rural roads, residents can quickly find themselves in life-threatening circumstances.
There are fewer lights and more livestock.
In the absence of street lamps or traffic lights, it can be difficult to see what's coming your way on rural roads. Additionally, you run a greater risk of coming across livestock or wild animals on the road.
Surfaces can be inconsistent.
Rural roads might have unpaved surfaces, massive potholes, and uneven terrain. And in many cases, there's not much of a shoulder to pull over onto.
Where are our roads improving? Getting worse?
While the dangers of rural roads are significant, many sparsely populated states have made great strides in recent years. In Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota, for example, the number of crash fatalities per capita declined more than 20% between 2013 and 2017.
Alaska, Washington, D.C., Wyoming, Oregon, and Kansas have all seen their safety rankings drop between 2013 and 2017. At the same time, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Montana, New York, and Minnesota saw improved safety.
States ranked by percentage increase or decrease in fatalities from 2013 to 2017
|States that became less safe for drivers
||Percentage increase in fatal crashes
|States that became more safe for drivers
||Percentage decrease in fatal crashes
We took a look at a few of the possible factors that might help states fare better or worse when it comes to fatal accidents.
What makes roads safer?
New safety initiatives introduced.
Both Montana and New York have benefited from "Vision Zero" initiatives designed to reduce traffic deaths dramatically. In each case, policy initiatives have been tailored to local challenges: Montana has emphasized rural areas, while New York City has prioritized pedestrian safety on city streets. Through a combination of adjusted traffic laws and increased enforcement, these programs seem to be succeeding.
What makes roads less safe?
Increased speed limits increase risk.
We know that speed is a major contributor to accident fatalities. Oregon, where an increase in rural speed limits correlated with more than a 30% surge in deaths, provides a tragic case in point.
Law enforcement agencies often lack resources.
In Alaska, for example, a spike in traffic fatalities coincided with serious reductions in the ranks of village public safety officers — the only law enforcement presence in many of the state's remote communities. Given these circumstances, effectively policing the roads can be virtually impossible.
A closer look at California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas
To better understand some of the specifics impacting road safety, we took a closer look at four states in which thousands of our customers hit the road every day. By analyzing crashes related to speeding, alcohol, drugs, and distracted driving in populous states like California, Texas, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, we identified some of what's working and what's not.
What makes roads safer?
Investments in safety improvements pay off.
Of the four states mentioned above, Pennsylvania was the only one to see its total crash fatalities decline between 2013 and 2017. In fact, the state's 2017 figure was the lowest ever recorded, a remarkable achievement. Pennsylvania has invested considerably in low-cost improvements, such as rumble strips, which help drivers stay in their lanes.
Drunk driving is on a positive downward trend.
All four states saw a decrease in drunk driving-related fatalities over the past five years. Pennsylvania saw the largest decrease, from about 30% in 2013 to almost 20% in 2017 — a likely result of its continued investment in road safety.
What makes roads less safe?
Speed continues to be a significant danger.
In all four states, speed was the No. 1 cause of traffic fatalities when compared to driving under the influence and distracted driving. In Illinois, for example, more than 40% of fatal accidents were attributed to speed, while roughly 7% were connected to distracted driving. The numbers were similar in California, where 30% of fatalities were speed-related, while about 4% were distracted driving-related.
Congestion can lead to crashes.
Texas saw its fatality total increase every year between 2013 and 2017. Yet, the state saw declines in the percentage of fatalities involving speeding, alcohol, and distracted driving, and its percentage of drug-related fatalities was basically unchanged. Accordingly, experts attribute the increase in deaths to traffic issues, especially in some major cities. In Houston, for example, drivers face long commutes, high speed limits, and limited enforcement.
Distracted driving remains a concern.
Illinois saw distracted driving fatalities increase from about 6% to 7% between 2013 and 2017. Theories as to why point to the fact that enforcement has been uneven across the state: Some research indicates that state troopers and Chicago police approach ticketing for distracted driving very differently. In a bright spot, however, California, Pennsylvania, and Texas all saw a decrease in fatalities related to distracted driving during that same period.
Safety insights: Empowering drivers to stay safe
There's been much focus in recent years on distracted driving. And rightfully so. It's a relatively new contributor to driving fatalities, and it's critical that drivers understand just how dangerous it can be. But it's also important that we don't lose sight of other, more long-standing risks, like speeding.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), speeding killed 9,717 people in 2017 and was responsible for over a quarter of all crash fatalities. But it's 100% preventable. To help drivers better understand the risks on the road — and avoid them — Esurance offers DriveSense® mobile.
DriveSense is an app that draws maps of driving patterns and behaviors and gives drivers trip tips and weekly recaps. It tracks things like speeding, hard braking, and the time of day to offer drivers a transparent look at how safely (or not) they're driving. And for Esurance customers — as an added incentive to stay safe — it also provides a discount just for avoiding risky driving behaviors and staying safe on the road.*
"Unfortunately, we can't help drivers avoid every risk on the road," said Stephanie Braun, Director of Product Management at Esurance. "But by arming drivers with as much information as possible regarding common dangers as well as driving risks they themselves might be taking, we hope to empower them with the tools they need to stay safe. It's all part of our promise to make insurance, and the things that come with it, surprisingly painless."
We queried the NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) for car crash fatality data from 2013 to 2017 to analyze the deadliest states for drivers and factors involved in dangerous driving. We queried data from the FARS site relating specifically to crash and person-level data, which do produce some discrepancies in fatalities reported year over year. However, we scraped data from official FARS reports with the most final fatality and crash counts, including the amended 2016 values, to produce the most accurate count of fatalities by year. Although some agencies or sources may report higher distracted driving percentages, the National Security Council's "Distracted Driving" research cites limitations in reporting it consistently and uniformly. Because distracted driving is reported at the jurisdiction level, it may lead to variance state to state that may not only reflect more or less distracted driving but also the way distracted driving is observed and reported by law enforcement.
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