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Buckle up: The most dangerous states for drivers

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In 2007, Montana had 11.1 drunken driving auto deaths per 100,000 residents, the highest rate in the U.S. that year.

 According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, more Americans aged 5–34 die from motor vehicle crashes than from any other single cause. Despite this disturbing fact, a study released this week shows that states where fatalities caused by car accidents are very high are also states that are doing the least to prevent those accidents.

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The Trust for America’s Health, a nonprofit disease prevention group, released a report earlier this month on various causes of injuries and deaths in the United States. Included in that report is a by-state analysis of CDC data on auto fatalities, the costs arising from all fatalities and the policies states use to prevent car crashes. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the 10 states that had the highest rates of auto fatalities.

Deaths caused by motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. vary widely. Twelve states averaged less than 10 deaths per 100,000 people per year during 2007 to 2009. Massachusetts had the lowest average yearly rate in the country of just 5.5 per 100,000 people. On the other end of the spectrum, 14 states had at least three times as many deaths per 100,000 people. Mississippi had close to five times that rate.

A CDC report identified the estimated lifetime costs incurred by the states as the result of auto fatalities in a single year, including medical expenses and lost economic productivity. These two costs exceeded $170 billion in the U.S. in 2005, the most recent year data are available.

With such high costs and, more importantly, loss of life, the question is whether there is anything states can do to prevent car accidents. The Trust for America’s Health found that nothing works better to prevent traffic deaths than seat belt use. According to a report released by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, six of the 10 states with the lowest seat belt usage rates also had the highest average auto fatality rates between 2007 and 2009.

The Trust for America’s Health report also identified four key policies labeled by the CDC as useful in improving traffic safety. The four include having a primary seat belt law (which allows police to stop and ticket unbuckled drivers without any other cause), a mandatory ignition interlock for all convicted drunken drivers, a mandatory motorcycle helmet law and requiring booster seats for children 8 years old and younger.

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Despite the massive financial burden auto accidents place on states each year, it appears many still fail to enact the kinds of basic safety laws that are believed to be instrumental in reducing auto accident deaths. In fact, it appears that the states with the highest rates of auto fatalities lack some of those key policies. Of the 15 states with one or none of these policies in place, seven were among those with the highest fatality rates.

24/7 Wall St. ranked all 50 U.S. states based on the highest yearly average automobile deaths per 100,000 people from 2007 to 2009. 24/7 Wall St. also calculated the total costs incurred by each state for these deaths using the CDC’s WISQAR report, which was for 2005. While the average auto mortality rate and the cost estimates are from different time periods, each set of data is the most recently available, and the data were analyzed to determine the approximate actual costs of traffic deaths.

1. Mississippi

  •  Average auto fatalities per 100,000: 26.7 (the highest)
  •  Auto fatalities/year: 784 (19th most)
  •  Lifetime medical costs due to one-year auto accidents: $7,158,007 (19th highest)
  •  Lifetime work-loss costs due to one-year auto accidents: $823,487,544 (17th highest)
  •  Percent commuters traveling 30 minutes or more: 30.83 percent (25th lowest)

Mississippi had the highest motor vehicle-related death rate in the country between 2007 and 2009. An average of 784 state residents die each year in accidents, a rate of 26.7 fatalities per 100,000 people. According to the most recent CDC data, a single year of auto deaths in the state is estimated to cost more than $820 million in lost productivity. The state has a primary seat belt law, and motorcycle helmets are mandatory, but it does not require ignition locks for convicted drunken drivers, and is one of 18 states that does not require booster seats for children 8 or younger.

2. Montana

  •  Average auto fatalities per 100,000: 23.3 (second highest)
  •  Auto fatalities/year: 225 (11th least)
  •  Lifetime medical costs due to one-year auto accidents: $1,831,676 (12th lowest)
  •  Lifetime work-loss costs due to one-year auto accidents: $195,289,017 (11th lowest)
  •  Percent commuters traveling 30 minutes or more: 18.05 percent (fourth lowest)

With an auto injury fatality annual average of 23.3 per 100,000 residents in the period between 2007 and 2009, Montana has the second highest rate on the list. The problem may be due in part to drunken driving. In 2007, Montana had 11.1 drunken driving auto deaths per 100,000 residents, the highest rate for that year. Montana has done little to respond to these figures. The state has not adopted any of the four auto-safety policies that were identified as critical by the CDC. Despite the high fatality rate, the medical costs and work-loss costs associated with them rank in the bottom 15.

3. Alabama

  •  Average auto fatalities per 100,000: 21.7 (tied third highest)
  •  Auto fatalities/year: 1,014 (11th most)
  •  Lifetime medical costs due to one-year auto accidents: $8,254,510 (15th highest)
  •  Lifetime work-loss costs due to one-year auto accidents: $964,444,444 (13th highest)
  •  Percent commuters traveling 30 minutes or more: 32.85 percent (19th highest)

Alabama’s auto fatalities rate of 21.7 per 100,000 residents is tied for third highest. Single-year fatalities cost an estimated $8.2 million in medical costs, more than all but 14 states. Such an elevated rate of auto fatalities is surprising when contrasted with the state’s 91.4 percent seat belt usage rate. The high rate of auto injury deaths may be attributable in part to the lack of several key safety laws. Alabama does not mandate ignition interlocks for all convicted drunken drivers or requires booster seats for children under 8 years of age.

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4. Wyoming

  •  Average auto fatalities per 100,000: 21.7 (tied third highest)
  •  Auto fatalities/year: 116 (seventh least)
  •  Lifetime medical costs due to one-year auto accidents: $947,934 (fourth lowest)
  •  Lifetime work-loss costs due to one-year auto accidents: $107,859,504 (seventh lowest)
  •  Percent commuters traveling 30 minutes or more: 16.43 percent (third lowest)

Wyoming had an average of 21.7 auto injury fatalities per 100,000 people during each year between 2007 and 2009. Though the state has the smallest population in the country, with just 533,556 residents, its lifetime work-loss costs due to auto fatalities are estimated to exceed $100 million in a single year. Only about 16 percent of Wyoming’s workers commute more than 30 minutes per day, the third-lowest rate in the U.S. Despite the high fatality rate, Wyoming has not been proactive in addressing the issue legally. Presently, Wyoming does not have a primary seat belt law, nor a law mandating ignition interlocks for all convicted drunken drivers — only those who register a blood alcohol content of .15 receive the interlock. Additionally, attempts to ban texting in the state have failed in each of the past two years. 

5. Arkansas

  •  Average auto fatalities per 100,000: 21.6
  •  Auto fatalities/year: 619 (22nd most)
  •  Lifetime medical costs due to one-year auto accidents: $4,775,033 (24th lowest)
  •  Lifetime work-loss costs due to one-year auto accidents: $617,945,384 (24th highest)
  •  Percent commuters traveling 30 minutes or more: 26.02 percent (13th lowest)

Arkansas has the fifth-highest rate of auto injury fatalities. Between 2007 and 2009, the state averaged 21.6 fatalities per 100,000 residents per year. Arkansas has implemented a comprehensive highway safety plan for 2012. In the plan, the Highway Safety Office set specific goals for reducing DWI deaths, increasing seat belt usage, and slowing drivers down. The HSO hopes to accomplish these goals by bolstering training programs for law enforcement officials and educating the people through a series of high-visibility campaigns. 

Click Here to Read the Rest of 24/7 Wall St.'s: The most dangerous states to drive in