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12.31.11

America's Worst Drivers: The States, Gender, With the Most Accidents

Who's the most dangerous behind the wheel? Anneli Rufus on why you should steer clear of men, Montana, and marijuana—and take a ride with your grandparents in Kansas.

As the holiday season draws to a close, some of America’s hardest partiers may be wise to devise new year’s resolutions about drinking and then getting behind the wheel. How to increase your odds of staying safe on the road? By riding in Kansas with your grandparents—unless they’ve been smoking weed or are over 65. According to the research, who are this nation’s worst drivers and who are its best?

1. Montana is the nation’s crash-death capital; its fatal car-accident rate is more than twice as high as those of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, and three times as high as Massachusetts’s numbers.

According to U.S. Census data, based on the number of deaths per 100 million miles traveled, Montana’s fatal car-accident rate is exactly twice as high as those of California, Colorado, and Maryland, and nearly twice as high as those of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Oregon, and Ohio.

U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012. (PDF)

2. Males aged 18 to 20 are nearly seven times more likely to drink and drive than are females aged 18 to 20.

Similar contrasts hold for all age groups. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men aged 55 and up are five times more likely than women that age to drink and drive. The gap narrows slightly among 21- to 24-year-olds, as men that age are “only” three times more likely than their female counterparts to drink and drive. Males were responsible for 81 percent of all drinking-and-driving incidents in the U.S. last year: “Men ages 21-34 made up only 11 percent of the U.S. adult population in 2010, yet were responsible for 32 percent of all instances of drinking and driving,” reads the CDC report.

Drinking and Driving: A Threat to Everyone.” U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Vital Signs, October 2011; data drawn from the CDC Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2010.

3. Drivers over age 65 are only half as likely as younger drivers to see pedestrians.

The 2010 study that produced this stat was conducted in the Human Factors Laboratories at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, whose simulation technology entails a bronze Cadillac sedan and huge flat-screen TV. In the study, drivers over age 65 performed “braking actions” only half as often as younger participants when pedestrians appeared on sidewalks and roadsides.

Shani Bromberg, et al. “The Perception of Pedestrians From the Perspective of Elderly Experienced.Accident Analysis & Prevention: 44 (1), 48-55.

4. Depressed young women are 10 percent more likely than other drivers to engage in risky driving behaviors such as speeding and cellphone use.

A 2011 Australian study published in the British Medical Journal examined the effect of depression on drivers aged 17 to 25. Depressed young men are potentially dangerous behind the wheel as well: The study found that 7 percent of them are more likely than other drivers to engage in risky driving behaviors.

Bridie Scott-Parker, et al. “The Psychological Distress of the Young Driver: A Brief Report.Injury Prevention: 17 (4), 275-7.

5. Kansas is home to the nation’s best-prepared drivers; they scored 11 percent higher on written driving tests than drivers in Washington, D.C., who are the nation’s worst prepared.

For the annual GMAC Insurance National Drivers Test, licensed drivers are asked questions from actual DMV tests. Based on the 2011 results, researchers estimate that 20 percent of U.S. drivers today—one in every five, or 37 million—lack the basic knowledge required to earn a license and would fail DMV tests. “Having taken the GMAC test, the thought that one in five drivers on the roads with us today could fail it is somewhat disconcerting,” says Frank Miller, author of Driverthink: Reality-Based Driving Tips, Ideas and Suggestions for the Everyday Driver. Even more disconcerting: “This is a voluntary test, probably taken by drivers who are at least somewhat concerned about driving safety. One has to wonder what the ‘real’ numbers might be if we all had to take such tests.”

2011 GMAC National Drivers Test, conducted by GMAC Insurance Company, results released May 2011.

6. Children are twice as safe when riding in cars driven by their grandparents as they are when riding in cars driven by their parents.

“Children in crashes with grandparent drivers were at one-half the risk of injury compared with children in crashes with parent drivers,” reads the 2011 study that yielded this stat. As for why, “how about years of driving experience, often acquired on earlier vehicles which were far less safe than those of today?” asks Miller, a grandparent himself. “Maybe it’s the risk-aversion factor acquired over years of having seen others lost to traffic disasters. Could it be that grandparents simply don’t feel the need to take excessive chances racing from soccer game to football practice while trying to squeeze in some shopping at the same time? Could it actually, possibly be that older drivers as a group are really not the least competent on the roads?”

Fred Henretig, et al. “Grandparents Driving Grandchildren: An Evaluation of Child Passenger Safety and Injuries.” (PDF) Pediatrics, 128 (2): 289-95.

A Columbia team of researchers found a strong weed-crash connection and found that the more weed smoked, the greater the crash risk.

7. Native Americans are 17 percent more likely to be involved in alcohol-related driving fatalities than are Caucasians or African Americans, and 12 percent more likely than Hispanics.

The U.S. Department of Transportation study that yielded this stat ponders whether “the high rates of alcohol consumption among Native Americans are related to the stress caused by ‘Historical Loss’ or ‘Historical Unresolved Grief,’” and notes that “many people (including many Native Americans) consider heavy binge drinking to be representative of the ‘Indian way of drinking.’” The study also notes strikingly different drinking rates from tribe to tribe, “the highest being in the Northwest (e.g., 19.2 percent for men and 8.1 percent for women in Montana) compared to the Plains (6.8 percent for men, 4.4 percent for women).”

Eduardo Romano, et al. “Alcohol and Highway Safety: Special Report on Race/Ethnicity and Impaired Driving.” (PDF) U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2010.

8. Male drivers are involved in a whopping 80 percent of motor-vehicle crashes that kill or seriously injure pedestrians.

At least that’s how it rolls in the Big Apple, according to a study conducted by the New York City Department of Transportation. Although more males are driving at any given time—outnumbering female drivers at about a 60:40 ratio—this difference is still too slight to account for New York’s staggering crash stat. “It fascinates me that, with all the lifestyle changes we’ve seen throughout the years, when we see a couple in a car it is still usually the male behind the wheel,” Miller says. “Are male drivers greater risk takers? Or are they simply less proficient? Methinks this debate will go on forever, but regardless of the reasons, the statistics don’t lie. They just don’t reflect possible underlying causes—and that’s what we really need to focus on.”

Janette Sadik-Khan, et al. “New York City Pedestrian Safety Study & Action Plan.” (PDF) August 2011.

9. Drivers under the influence of marijuana are more than twice as likely as other drivers to be involved in motor-vehicle accidents.

The Columbia University-affiliated team who conducted the 2011 study that yielded this stat claim to have done so because marijuana’s role in car crashes had not yet been determined conclusively. They found a strong weed-crash connection and found that the more weed smoked, the greater the crash risk: “The results of this meta-analysis suggest that marijuana use by drivers is associated with a significantly increased risk of being involved in motor vehicle crashes,” the authors write.

Mu-Chen Li, et al. “Marijuana Use and Motor Vehicle Crashes.Epidemiologic Reviews, DOI: 10.1093/epirev/mxr017.

10. More than one third of all drivers tested in New York State and Washington, D.C., failed a written driving test.

The 2011 GMAC National Drivers Test, which uses actual DMV questions to appraise drivers’ knowledge of road rules, found the greatest rate of failure in the Empire State and the nation’s capital: In those areas, one in every three participants failed. The state with the lowest percentage of failures—only one in 20—was Wyoming. While GMAC’s research “shows significant geographical differences,” Miller says, “unless you are an insurance actuary, the results are somewhat meaningless. The real question might be: Why such differences? What, for example, might Kansas or Colorado be doing to educate its drivers that Washington, D.C. or New York City are not?”

2011 GMAC National Drivers Test, conducted by GMAC Insurance Company, results released May 2011.