Fatal highways: America's 9 most dangerous places for drivers

The next time a meandering urbanite cuts you off on the way to the shopping center or dents your fender in a parking lot, you might feel like you're living in one of this country's most dangerous places to drive. Think again.

According to a survey by Auto Insurance Center, a car insurance comparison website, the worst places for fatalities are nearly all rural, frequently poor areas of the southern and western tiers of the country, crisscrossed by roads with high speed limits. And despite having high insurance rates, the bumper-to-bumper trafficked northeast and California came off well in this survey.

But there are several caveats here. Auto Insurance Center's survey covers 20 years, included 710,000 fatal auto accidents, and plotted the location of each one. While large urban areas had more deaths by motor vehicle, they had fewer relative to their overall population.

Another caveat is that the accident data are, like cars, constantly moving. Guardrails are put up, seatbelt laws are enforced, better medical care keeps people alive and drunk drivers are caught before they kill. "Good marks one year can be bad marks the next," the survey noted.

Most of these counties are places you've never heard of, or only seen when you whizzed by a road sign. But if you are one of the 50 million people who'll take a driving vacation this year, your odds of surviving a major car accident in these places are a lot lower than elsewhere.

Here's a list of the nine most dangerous counties around the U.S., along with some of the safest.

​La Paz County, Arizona

Tucked away in the western corner of the state and bordering California, La Paz is the second-least populated county in Arizona, but tops the most fatal list, according to Auto Insurance Center.

Its location -- and attractions like the Colorado River and Lake Havasu, as well as numerous ghost towns -- make it a compelling "backyard playground" for almost half a million Californians who roar across the border on Interstate 10, according to Sheriff's Lieutenant Curt Bagby.

The result: a lot of out-of-stater auto accidents on roads overwhelmed by tourists.

​Tunica County, Mississippi

Coming in second on the survey is this Mississippi delta community with just one major highway -- four-lane Route 61. It is called "The Blues Highway" because it comes down from Memphis to New Orleans.

But when you exit the four-laner you might find yourself on some serious back roads where your tires may be spitting gravel, according to Highway Patrol Sergeant Joey Miller. Drivers take liberties on these ill-lit back roads where there's not much law enforcement.

"One of our biggest problems is drunk driving," Miller added.

It will be tough to improve these roads, since the local population is less than 11,000 and has a median income of $23,000.

​Leon County, Texas

The Lone Star State is known for fast drivers, which has either helped - or hurt - this east Texas county in taking the No. 3 spot on the dangerous counties list. Drivers tend to think they're dogging it at the "official" state speed limit of 70 miles per hour.

But the folks in Leon, which takes its name from a yellow wolf that haunted the region in the 1840s, may have found a way to fence them in - by stringing cables across the median strip of Interstate 45, the major artery running between Dallas and Houston.

"The cable messes up their cars some, but it solves our problem with the head-ons," said Jack Keeling, one of the three county justices of the peace. "I haven't seen a single fatality in the last year."

​Lowndes County, Alabama

No. 4 on the list straddles Interstate 65, where Bill Slaughter, chairman of the board of commissioners, warned motorists to slow down.

This major north-south route has eight interchanges in the county and several major distribution centers where trucks are constantly pulling in and out. That leads to a lot of high-speed mergers where unwary motorists may find themselves in a rear-ender with a tractor-trailer.

When off the interstate, watch for low lighting in the county's rural areas, he said.

​Big Horn County, Montana

Named after the big horn sheep, this county is remembered as the place where General Custer made his famous, and fatal, last stand. The Cheyenne tribe that wiped him out, along with the Crow tribe that scouted for him, still maintain reservations on much of the land.

With a 60 percent Native-American population, 29 percent of county residents live below the poverty level. Alcoholism is rampant, and - with little or no public transportation - driving is the only way to negotiate the hundred-mile distances.

Another problem: "The state patrol has no authority on tribal lands," said Captain Keith Edgell, district commander of the Montana Highway Patrol. "All we can do is assist with fatal crash investigations."

​Millard County, Utah

Located on the heavily trafficked Interstate 15 corridor that runs from southern California to Canada, drivers who try to make it all the way without stopping frequently end up as fatalities.

"Drowsy driving is a big problem," said Gary Mower, the traffic records program manager with the Utah Highway Safety Office.

And for local drivers, the lack of seat belt use in rural areas adds to the body count, he said. Nationally more than half the drivers killed in crashes aren't buckled, according to highway safety data.

​Reeves County, Texas

There was once a saying about "no law west of the Pecos" Mountains, but there is a jail here - the world's largest private prison. Despite the influx of inmates, the county's population has declined by 3,000 since 1970, according to the census, and is now only 14,000.

Local officials and the Texas state highway patrol did not return calls seeking comment on why Reeves might be dangerous for drivers. But recent insurance data make clear that the Lone Star State is a dangerous place -- Texas is home to the top four counties for traffic fatalities.

Texas has many 80 mile per hour speed limits in rural areas. And in one instance there is an 85 mile per hour speed limit on a toll road stretching from Austin to San Antonio.

"This is a negative trend for safety," said Loretta Worters, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute. "The numbers bear out the fact that an increase in speed results in more fatalities."

​Emery County, Utah

If you're calling for help here, you may wait a while. "Some stretches of Interstate 70 and its other highways are very remote," said County Commissioner Ethan Migliori.

"Some sections do not have cell phone service," he warned. "Worst case scenarios have been close to an hour from the time the accident occurred to the time a county emergency medical technician arrived."

While each town has a fully equipped ambulance, there aren't enough calls to justify full-time EMTs. "The volunteer system will always have slower response times," Migliori said.

​Conecuh County, Alabama

Last on the most fatal list at No. 9, this county's name comes from the Creek word meaning "land of cane," and its drivers obviously raise it on the roads.

It is another rough patch on Interstate 65 as it winds its way through Alabama, carrying snowbirds from the cold winter weather in the Midwest to the sunny Gulf Coast.

Best known for its "Conecuh sausage," the county has a median income of $22,000 and a population of some 13,000. Officials there did not return calls or emails.

Safest counties

But let's not forget about those counties around the country with the lowest rate of driver fatalities. The safest is Bristol County, Rhode Island with Suffolk County, Massachusetts coming in second. And third, defying all the data about the Wild West, is Cass County, North Dakota.

It only goes to show that no theory is perfect.