One of the leading causes of death within the United States is automobile accidents, according to the Center for Disease Control. It is for this reason that seat belt laws have become such an important and widely enforced safety initiative. Last year alone there were 37,938 deaths caused by motor vehicle accidents in the United States, and motor vehicles were the leading cause of injury in the U.S. with over 2.5 million sent to the emergency room last year, and 1 million days a spent in the hospital by Americans a year as a result of accidents. That means $33 billion worth of work hours lost and $18 billion in medical costs a year.
With the propensity for vehicular casualty and misfortune so high in America, automobile safety becomes key, and accident-caused medical expenses become a financial consideration that demands an emergency fund and good insurance just the same as the dentist or an unplanned illness.
When a family moves to a new state they consider a lot of factors: the schools, the job market, the neighborhood, crime, and various other health and safety concerns. Property damage and health risk are combined in the risk of vehicular collision or crash. So are business losses in some cases. Businesses that depend on shipments, either of their product or of parts and materials to produce or fuel production depend on roadways as a key component in their business model. Any losses can have a significant impact on a company’s bottom line. It’s part of why the winter sometimes has a detrimental effect on the economy and business reports, apart from consumer spending. Transportation costs rise and speed drops during months where roads are more hazardous or difficult.
Roadway safety is a large enough contributor to death and injury statistics in states that it arguably has a place in any risk/benefit analysis, whether your a family or a business. But figuring out which states have the safest roads is by no means a simple matter — rather it is determined by a number of different components. It’s social, it’s political, and it’s economic, making this a mufti-faceted issue, but one that still has distinct answers. Let’s take a look at what qualities affect safety and what states have the best track record for hitting the road.
States: Utah, New York
Justification: Drunk driving data
Part of what makes roads safe has to do with who’s driving on the roads with you — in particular whether or not they’re sober. No amount of defensive driving can cancel out an intoxicated individual in the other lane. Both Utah and West Virginia have the lowest prevalence of drunk driving according to CDC data, at 0.7%.
Prevalence in that context is measured by looking at the “Percentage of adults who report driving after drinking too much (in the past 30 days),” which is a problematic statistic for a few reasons. The most obvious is that self-reporting is inherently flawed, or, put more bluntly, people lie. Which is why it’s also valuable to look at the number of deaths reported state to state.
Between 2003 and 2012, Alaska and Rhode Island, and Vermont all had the fewest reported deaths in which people were killed when the driver had a Blood Alcohol Content over 0.08 g/dL. However, this does not take population size differences into consideration, and if you factor in population size for a rough estimate of mortality to population ratio, Utah once again comes up as the state with the lowest incidence of drunk driving leading to deaths, joined by New York.
States: Nevada, Wyoming, Utah
Justification: Infrastructure grades
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has an ongoing report which assigns grades to states based on their upkeep and safety of various forms of infrastructure. The report is admittedly incomplete, but three states stood out by far from others when looking at assigned grades and/or the percentage of major roads in the state which are in poor condition.
According to ASCE, before the recession “Nevada was ranked one of the top five states with the best maintained roads.” Now, there may be more of a financial concern and new demands, but the fact remains that only 2% of major roads are in poor condition. Wyoming’s major roads are also only in poor condition in 2% of cases. And while Utah has 4% of major roads in poor condition, it has a B+ grade assigned to its roads — considerably higher than most states who sit around the low C or D range.
“Utah has a strong history of investment in roads, meeting ever increasing demand through innovative construction approaches,” states the report, admitting that the age of many roads (over 50 years) could lead to a spike in costs as time goes on, but that history suggests Utah has been capable of rising to the challenge.
States: California, Florida, Arizona
The weather can have a major impact on roads in a number of important ways. States with icy roads that require upkeep during certain times of the year — so salting the roads or plowing — can make for more dangerous roads because driving conditions are inherently worse and residents must depend on public services to make some areas drivable.
Extreme weather changes and seasonal highs and lows also result in damage that requires repair and thus demands more funding from states. One prime negative example of this would be the state of Michigan, which has hot summers but extremely cold winters, leading to roadway damage and potholes created from expanding and contracting of water into ice and back again. This creates larger holes and cracks from small crevices, and means that even newer roads have a shorter lifespan. This, in combination with bad weather conditions and icy driving conditions and bad visibility in winter, leads to a less safe environment. On the other hand, residents are used to such conditions in some states, while other states that have been seeing extreme weather are unused to slippery roads, and accidents increase with new and alien conditions.
“These small counties don’t have the money to prepare like they should for bad weather like we’ve had, this close together,” said Sequatchie County Sheriff Ronnie Hitchcock, discussing Tennessee’s hard hitting winter this year, according to the Times Free Press. According to IcyRoadSafety.com, which has put together fatal accident reports between 2008 and 2010 to create a map of high and low risk zones within the United States for winter accidents, the states with negligible risk are exactly the ones you’d expect: California, Arizona, and Florida — not to mention the southernmost tip of Texas.
State: Colorado, North Dakota, and Nevada
Justification: Deaths and cost
Finally, there is perhaps the most simplistic way to consider road safety, and that’s with a fiscal breakdown of the cost of deaths in motor vehicle accidents. This breaks down the medical and work loss costs of vehicle-related deaths by state, showing which states have the highest potential for worker loss and safety concerns. As with the break down of drunk driving incidents, this can’t be taken at face value because of population differences between states — unsurprisingly Vermont, Alaska, and Rhode Island all show the lowest cost. When compared with population size accounted for, states with the lowest cost included Colorado, North Dakota, and Nevada, in that order.
Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS