Russ Rader, senior vice president of communications at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, explained to 24/7 Wall St. why fatality rates can vary so widely. “A big factor in a state’s fatality rate is how much of its area is rural,” Rader said. Rural roads tend to have higher speed limits and are often lined with trees and telephone poles, raising the stakes of a collision.
Minnesota is the only state to rank among the 10 safest where a larger share of roadway is rural than the 70.7% U.S. share. Meanwhile, each of the 10 most dangerous states to drive in has a larger share of rural roads than is typical nationwide.
State regulations — seat belt laws in particular — also have a considerable impact on roadway safety. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seat belts save thousands of lives every year, and wearing a seat belt in the front seat of a car reduces the risk of death by 45%.
In some states, seat belt use is less common than typical nationwide, partially because of state laws. For example, 15 states have secondary seat belt laws, meaning a motorist cannot be pulled over for not using a seat belt. And another, New Hampshire, does not issue any traffic tickets for adults not using a seat belt. The remaining 34 states, however, have primary seat belt laws, meaning police can make traffic stops for failure to buckle up.
Not surprisingly, seat belt usage rates tend to be higher and fatality rates often lower in states with primary seat belt laws. Massachusetts is the only state to rank among the 10 safest with a secondary seat belt law. Meanwhile, three of the 10 most dangerous states have secondary seat belt laws.
Such laws have a meaningful impact on outcomes. “If every state with secondary enforcement of their safety belt laws switched to primary enforcement, 242 fewer people would have died in 2016,” Rader said.
Despite ever-improving vehicle safety features and technology that reduces the likelihood of a fatal accident, driving deaths nationwide are on the rise. Part of the explanation is continued economic improvement since the end the Great Recession. “We had a big dip in traffic fatalities during the recession and when the economy recovers, traffic deaths go up as well,” Rader explained. This is largely because people tend to drive more when the economy is good.
Indeed, the roadway fatality rate dipped from 13.7 deaths per 100,000 people in 2007, the year the recession began, to 11.0 per 100,000 in 2009, the year the recession ended. As economic conditions continue to improve, the traffic fatality rate has climbed slightly in each of the last three years.
To rank the safest and most dangerous states to drive in the United States, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed roadway fatality data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety along with urban and rural travel data from the Federal Highway Administration, each for 2016. The number of fatal roadway deaths was then adjusted for the population, noted as fatalities per 100,000 residents. Seat belt use rates and the share of fatal accidents on rural roads are also from IIHS and are all for 2016. Fatal injuries due to vehicle accidents include pedestrian and cyclist fatalities. Data on holiday deaths are for 2016 and came from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System.