Posted on 05 Jan 2010
As we reported yesterday, as of January 1st, drivers in Illinois, Oregon and New Hampshire must submit to state laws forbidding text-messaging while driving. Those states will join 16 others, plus the District of Columbia, in banning texts.
The new laws are undoubtedly effective: AAA reports that as many as 8,000 crashes related to distracted driving--including text-messaging--occur each day nationwide. That's 80% of total accidents. According the Auto Club of Southern California, a similar ban implemented in California last January has reduced on-the-road texts by 70%.
It turns out, however, that as much as these measures help, there isn't a correlation between more laws on the books and fewer accidents. Sometimes, it's the states with fewer rules--but more educational initiatives--that have safer roads.
For example, New Hampshire joins Rhode Island and Vermont on Forbes' list of the safest states for drivers. But New Hampshire has enacted neither a primary nor secondary seat belt law for adults. (Primary laws allow police to ticket a driver for not wearing a seat belt, without any other traffic offense taking place. Secondary laws require officers to issue a ticket for not wearing a seat belt only when there is another citable infraction.) Thirty states have primary seat belt laws; 19 have secondary laws.
In the same vein, Vermont currently has no cellphone law. But Rhode Island, No. 1 on the Forbes' list, uses laws against aggressive driving, strict blood-alcohol-level enforcement for drivers, helmet laws and the aforementioned texting-while-driving ban to great effect. And the state also employs aggressive marketing campaigns.
"It's just blanket targeting media in the market with messages," says Michael Lewis, director of Rhode Island's Department of Transportation. "Particularly, we target the 18- to 34-year-old male age group, because that's where the vast majority, statistically, of your accidents happen."
Lewis says the state spends nearly $1 million a year in government grants on media events and on TV and radio ads, including prominent spots--during Red Sox games--with professional athletes acting as safety spokesmen.
Behind the Numbers
To determine the states with America's safest drivers, Forbes used traffic fatality data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Each state was ranked first by the number of deaths it had per million miles driven, awarding one point for the state with the fewest deaths, two points to the state with the next fewest deaths, etc.
Then the states were ranked by their average number of traffic fatalities for the years 2008 and 2009. Again, Forbes awarded one point for the state with the lowest average, two points for the state with the next-lowest number, and so on.
The two rankings were then added. The states with the lowest overall scores made the Forbes' list; ties were broken by giving preference to the state with the fewest fatalities per million vehicle miles driven.
Not every state with a low fatality average made the list. Alaska and North Dakota, for example, reported some of the lowest average death rates of any states, 72 and 107.5, respectively, for 2008 and 2009. It's no surprise, though. Those states each have populations of fewer than 700,000 people and large swaths of land where virtually no one drives.
In much the same way, a low deaths-per-million-miles rank didn't guarantee a slot on the list. While Massachusetts tops the country for fewest deaths per million miles driven (0.79), it ultimately placed lower down at No. 4 on the list because of its higher absolute number of total fatalities.
Even though New York and New Jersey have less than one person killed per million miles driven, their large populations lend to inevitably high absolute numbers of fatalities (more than 1,200 per year in New York and more than 600 in New Jersey).
Crashes Cost Money
Safe-driving states have an additional advantage: Fewer accidents mean a state saves taxpayer dollars. According to the National Safety Council, the average cost per death in 2007, the most recent year on record, was $1.1 million (for a non-fatal but disabling injury, it's $61,600). That includes wage and productivity losses, medical expenses, administrative expenses, motor vehicle damage and employers’ uninsured costs.
Rhode Island's Lewis considers the state's $1 million outlay for public service announcements--particularly those focused on curbing drunk driving--money well spent. And rightly so: Alcohol is a factor in 40% of crash-related deaths, and in 60% of the fatal crashes for 16- to 24-year-olds. One and a half million people are arrested annually for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. More than 2,700 people in Rhode Island were arrested for drunk driving in 2008, according to the 2008 FBI Uniform Crime Report.
Speeding is a factor in 33% of all fatal crashes nationwide, according to AAA. It's also the most common traffic law violation--and associated with a disproportionate amount of winter-time accidents, says Boulder County Road Supervisor Ted Plank.
"Most of the accidents we see are speed-related," Plank says. "That's the thing we talk to folks about in terms of winter driving. The first point is obviously to slow down."
It's apt advice, if just a few more Colorado drivers would follow it: The state was six spots from making our list.