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Safer Driving Depends on Demographics

September 01, 2010 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Traffic accidents are not equal-opportunity afflictions. Your chances of being killed or maimed on the highway reflect, to a surprising degree, whether you live in the city (relatively safe) or the country (casualty-prone) as well as your accumulated time on earth (older is generally safer until about age 85, when risks rise sharply).

But a lot also depends on the choices you make behind the wheel. To paraphrase Dean Wormer in “Animal House,” distracted, drunk and stupid is not a way to go down the road, son. Consider:

  • Distracted. Texting or talking on a cell phone while driving multiplies accident risks by factors of as much as 14. The most common element in Minnesota traffic crashes last year was “driver inattention/distraction,” the Department of Public Safety reports.
  • Drunk. More than a third of Minnesota’s 421 traffic fatalities in 2009, including deaths of imbibing pedestrians, were alcohol related, and 32,576 motorists were arrested for drunken driving. One in seven Minnesota drivers has a DWI.
  • Stupid. This demographic is shrinking now that Minnesota finally enforces its seat-belt law the same way as every other traffic statute. With our police given the power to ticket you simply for not buckling up, a record high 90 percent of drivers did the smart thing last year. But well over half of vehicle occupants killed in 2009 weren’t belted in--and half of them were ejected.

Minnesota’s traffic toll of deaths and serious injuries has been declining to historic lows in recent years thanks to a combination of public and private efforts to combat bad driver behavior, plus economic and population trends that lead to safer motoring.

Despite easing of fuel prices and a slow recovery from the Great Recession, Minnesotans still drove 1 percent fewer vehicle miles last year than in 2008, which means less traffic and fewer crashes. On the demographic side, the state’s shrinking teenage population means fewer of the group most likely to die in a crash. Further, the numbers of people most likely to drive drunk and unbelted, those in their early 20s, are holding steady while the aging of the Baby Boom means more and more drivers in the 55-to-69 age group who are least likely to take risks behind the wheel and get into crackups.

Meanwhile, population growth in the Twin Cities area is projected at nearly twice the rate for the rest of Minnesota, meaning more drivers in built-up areas where crashes may be numerous but are mostly minor and fewer motorists in the rural expanses that account for more than two-thirds of traffic fatalities.

Nationally, rural residents are 2-1/2 times more likely to die in a crash than their metropolitan cousins. Some of this deadly imbalance is behavioral and some is environmental. For example, emergency medical services are slower to respond over long distances and sometimes less well equipped in the country than in the city, which spells death for some rural accident victims who could have been saved with prompter treatment. And less-traveled country roads can pose greater dangers due to poor design or maintenance. 

But human factors magnify these risks. Non-metro drivers use seat belts about 10 percent less than city slickers. There’s an even bigger gap in buckling up between occupants of pickup trucks that predominate in the country and minivans that are emblematic of the suburbs.

Attitudes about driving tend to be more carefree in sparsely populated regions, and not just because of NASCAR and a rural car culture straight out of “The Dukes of Hazzard.”  A new survey by the Center for Excellence in Rural Safety at the University of Minnesota found that drivers feel safer on rural roads than on urban freeways, even though the exact opposite is true and false confidence can lead to risk-taking behind the wheel.

Greater Minnesota suffers from another geographic danger – a far-flung licensed beverage industry whose traditional business model depends on at least a portion of customers drinking and driving. But this is where interesting public and private initiatives are working to reduce the rural highway carnage. Promoted by the state Office of Traffic Safety but often financed by private businesses, “Safe Ride” programs that take drinkers off the road are cropping up in surprising corners of rural Minnesota.

One of them serves the mining cities of Eveleth, Gilbert, Mountain Iron and Virginia, where a local legislator once boasted that Iron Rangers “wake up at 0.08,” the reduced threshold for drunken driving that Minnesota adopted in 2005. Quad Cities Last Call, funded by bars, a beer distributor and a taxi company, operates year-round whenever drinking establishments are open.

Breezy Point Safe Ride offers free and low-cost transportation to, between and home from 20 resort-area bars and restaurants that contribute $200 to $400 a month to the program. Isanti County SafeCab operates Thursday through Saturday nights with taxi rides subsidized up to $15 by bars and restaurants, a beer distributor and a community fund. In deep-rural southern Minnesota, Cleveland Sober Cab, established and funded by the police department in the city of 699, provides free rides home from bars seven nights a week.

Tougher traffic laws, targeted enforcement and public relations efforts contribute to safer highways, too. Officials credit Minnesota’s lower alcohol-concentration limit, stronger restrictions on novice teen drivers, a 2008 ban on texting, emailing and web access while driving and 2009’s seat-belt law upgrades. Enhanced enforcement and media campaigns have focused on seat-belt scofflaws, speeders and drunken drivers. Engineering upgrades such as cable median barriers prevent crashes and improving emergency response lessens their impact.

Apparently, it’s all working. So far this year, Minnesota traffic deaths are running 15 below last year’s toll, which was the lowest since 1944.

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