How Deadly are Your State’s Roads?

A new report by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute shows which states have the safest and most dangerous roads.  Here's how the states rank and what we can do about it.

Sean Doyle

It seems that every day there is at least one news story about a serious injury or death on our roads. It doesn’t matter where you live, the story is much the same. So common have these stories become, many of us are oblivious to steady upticks in deaths from traffic crashes across the country. In fact, each year, four times more people are killed in auto crashes than the death tolls of U.S. soldiers in the entire Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined.1

Some cities and states have begun to recognize the large death toll our roads cause and are implementing plans to eliminate deaths from crashes all together. While no state has yet achieved that, there are big differences in death toll on roads between states. A new report by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute shows which states have the safest and most dangerous roads.

The nation’s safest roads are in Washington D.C., where 3.1 of every 100,000 people die from road crashes every year; in 2013, this amounted to 20 deaths. The nation’s deadliest roads are in Montana, with 22.6 fatalities per 100,000 people, or 229 deaths in 2013. To see where your state ranks, check out the chart below.

Table 1: Fatality rate from road crashes per 100,0002 and total deaths per state3, 2013

According to Dr. Sivak, one of the report authors, “Speed is likely to be among the most important causative factors” in states’ per capita fatality rates and the data seems to support that conclusion. In urban D.C., the highest speed limit is 55mph; in Montana, where there is plenty of open, rural spaces, the highest speed limit is 80mph. But deaths on our roadways can’t be attributed to speed alone – other factors like total miles driven, climate, and age distribution can effect these rates as well to varying degrees.4

Vision Zero

Even in the states with the safest roads, hundreds if not thousands of people die annually from motor vehicle crashes, and many more are injured. In 2013 there were nearly 33,000 fatalities across the U.S., slightly more than the number of deaths from firearms. As mentioned above, some cities like New York City, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco have launched initiatives known as “vision zero” to eliminate traffic fatalities. The basic premise of vision zero is that one death is too many, and traffic fatalities aren’t inevitable. If you agree, add your name to our petition to help spread this initiative in cities and states across the country.

Washington State is currently the only state in the country that has adopted vision zero statewide. Since adopting the plan in 2000, Washington has been able to dramatically decrease deaths, from a peak of 658 deaths in 20025 to 436 in 2013.6

Achieving Zero Deaths

Eliminating deaths on our nation’s roads requires multiple strategies including education, law enforcement, vehicle safety, and infrastructure. Some will occur at the local level including education about safe driving and riding practices and enforcement of traffic laws like DUI penalties and speed limits. Vehicle safety has advanced dramatically over the past few decades and will continue to improve. Seatbelts, air bags, blind spot warning, back up cameras, automatic breaking, and adaptive headlights are just a few safety features available in cars today.

But arguably the most forward thinking aspect of vision zero is how it views infrastructure: we should design systems that take into account human fallibility, and our systems should share responsibility for crashes – i.e. if we design roads that make crashes more likely, we should fix the design. Seattle’s vision zero plan reflects that view by promoting “street designs that emphasize safety, predictability, and the potential for human error.”7

Designing our roadways and cities to reduce deaths often involves reducing speeds so that drivers can see more and, if crashes do occur, are far less likely to involve serious injury or death. As Dr. Sivak noted, speed is one of the most important factors in fatalities. In addition, more and better cross walks, sidewalks, bike lanes and other pedestrian and cycling improvements can reduce the risk of crashes between vehicles and pedestrians or cyclists.

Given the numbers above, some states are clearly safer than others regarding traffic deaths, but none have yet eliminated them. If you believe more states should be working towards that goal, add your name to our petition. Road accidents are the second leading cause of injury-related deaths in the U.S.8 It’s time for individual states to set goals to eliminate deaths and serious injury from accidents, and to adopt vision zero principles in designing better transportation systems of the future. Your voice can help us do that.


1 CNN, “Home and Away: Iraq and Afghanistan War Casualties,” October 16, 2015.
2University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, Mortality from Road Crashes in the Individual U.S. States: A Comparison with Leading Causes of Death, October, 2015.
3National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Traffic Safety Facts 2013, 2015.
4Forbes, “The Safest And Deadliest States For Motorists,” October 5, 2015.
5Transportatin for America, “Target Zero – Washington’s 2013 Strategic Highway Safety Plan.”
6National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Traffic Safety Facts 2013, 2015.
7City of Seattle, Vision Zero, Seattle’s Plan to End Traffic Deaths and Serious Injuries by 2030 , 2015.
8Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Statistics on Gun Deaths & Injuries,” November 16, 2012.


Sean Doyle