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States where the drivers are most dangerous

Your holiday road trip is underway. You’ve already navigated the overcrowded I-95 corridor from New York to Washington. Or you’ve pulled out of the parking lot of Southern California’s freeways, where motorcycles do a balancing act down the white line at 70 miles per hour. But it’s not time to breathe a sigh of relief, or even believe that you’re safe.

The Auto Insurance Center (AIC) just completed a study of the deadliest driving conditions by state throughout the U.S. from 2005 to 2015. The insurance news and information website used the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s fatal accident reporting system to reveal the cause of deadly crashes. They include reckless driving, road rage, drunk driving, racing the guy next to you and -- finally -- bad weather.

When it comes to careless and reckless driving, wide-open Montana had the greatest death rate, 108 fatalities for every 100,000 residents over those 11 years. Not buckling your seat belt was the most common cause. Arkansas was second with 86 deaths.

Conversely, New York and California were among the states with the fewest fatalities per 100,000 -- about two and three respectively. Other safe states were Virginia and Indiana.

Hoosiers, however, have a real problem with road rage, with nearly 13 fatalities per 100,000, more than twice as many as the next highest state (South Carolina). Failure to stay in lane caused 93 fatalities in Mississippi and nearly as many in Wyoming.

As for drunk driving, the High Plains proved to be the Badlands indeed. Wyoming was the worst, with 93 deaths per 100,000, and Montana was a close second with 86. Until 2005, the Big Sky state of Montana actually allowed driving with an open beer can in hand. Although that’s no longer legal, the state “has a strong social trend of drinking and driving,” according to the AIC.

The third- and fifth-worst states for drunk driving were North and South Dakota, respectively, with South Carolina wedged in between in fourth place. In contrast, Massachusetts residents were virtual teetotalers, notching only six deaths from intoxication per 100,000 residents. Arkansas had the biggest percentage increase in drunk-driving deaths during the 11 years, with Oregon and Arizona close behind.

Despite all the publicity, laws and organizations aimed at combating drunk driving, 28 people die each day due to crashes involving alcohol, the AIC said.

When it comes to speeding and racing, Wyoming and Montana remained consistently at the top, while Alabama was third. Dixie drivers don’t seem to mind racing with police: 2.5 fatalities per 100,000 residents occurred during such a pursuit. And those much-maligned New Jersey drivers were the safest.

When it comes to weather, rain is the grim reaper of traffic deaths, killing more people than fog, sleet and snow combined – even in Alaska.

But every study has its limitations. The AIC statistics on traffic deaths were culled from 11 years of data that ended as of 2015. So it didn’t calculate the recent surge in traffic accidents and fatalities that took place this year in states like Georgia, which has seen a 22 percent increase in automotive deaths. More people are on the roads -- and driving faster.

Drivers in rural states aren’t necessarily worse than their counterparts in the bumper-hugging Northeast or other urban areas. But speeds are higher there, particularly in areas that increased their speed limits to 85 miles per hour. Plus, they have more pickup trucks on the road, and momentum and mass both factor into vehicular deaths.

Also, places with lower median incomes tend to not have newer and more expensive vehicles with crash-avoidance features like sensors that detect cars that are too close and autonomous braking.

And if crowded states have as many accidents as rural ones, it’s not an accident: Their population density is higher.

So this holiday season, we should all drive safely -- everywhere.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.