Green Room

Chart of the day: The freaky deaky red state/blue state traffic fatality comparison

posted at 10:59 am on November 20, 2012 by

Follow the link and have a look at the numbers state by state. Mind-blowing, not just because the trend is so clear but because it defies all obvious explanation.

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…

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…

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.”

Normally I have some half-assed theory to explain a data set but this time it’s no more than quarter-assed. My first hunch was that there might be a difference in seatbelt laws, but no, there really isn’t much of one. Then I thought maybe it’s a function of red states being more rural, which means more open road, which in turn means people driving faster and having more devastating accidents. But presumably they’re having fewer accidents too. Blue-state roads are likely more congested, which means there’s more out there to collide with. Granted, average crash speeds in blue states may be lower, which would mean more survivable accidents, but if there are many more accidents there should also be many more fatal accidents. So, I don’t get it.

Here’s an interesting detail from the NBC piece, though:

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.

Maybe that explains it. It’s not that the accidents are more severe in rural states, it’s that it takes longer to transport the victims to the nearest hospital because the nearest hospital is farther away. And those extra minutes after a crash are often decisive. I think that theory at least qualifies as half-assed rather than quarter-assed, but right now it’s the best I can do.

Update: A few commenters make a solid argument that this has less to do with open roads in rural states than the fact that there are many more non-drivers in urban states. (Including your humble correspondent.) E.g., it may be that traffic fatalities are roughly even among the pool of drivers in Wyoming and New York, respectively, but toss in a few million non-drivers in NYC and that’ll dilute the numbers for New York among the general population. In other words, the study is using the wrong baseline to compare fatalities. Apples and oranges.

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