Every year in December, my wife and I drive up to Scranton, Pennsylvania to spend Christmas with family and friends. We live in Raleigh, North Carolina, so the drive is long but usually uneventful.
This past year, however, our trip north was complicated by some pretty nasty weather. Nothing as bad as what was experienced out west around this time, and certainly nothing compared to the great “Snowzilla” attack of 2016. But it was bad enough to cause several accidents and delays along the way. In the end, a drive that should have taken 8 hours ended up taking closer to 14 hours.
During one of several times we were stopped in traffic behind an accident, I started to wonder what the most dangerous roadways are in the United States. And where in our country are automobile accidents most prevalent? Following a near collision with a tractor trailer along the seemingly always foggy stretch of Interstate 81 in Schuylkill County, PA (between Harrisburg and Hazleton), I certainly had my own opinion on the matter.1 But what do actual data suggest?
The map below shows the location of each fatal automobile accident in the United States in 2014, according to records kept by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In total, 32,675 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S in 2014. And although this is a terribly high number, it actually represents a 25% decrease since 2005. Moreover, since 2009, motor vehicle crashes have not been among the top 10 causes of death in the U.S.
Interactive Google Map Showing All Fatal Automobile Accidents in the United States in 2014
Table 1 below shows the 25 U.S. counties with the highest number of vehicle-related deaths in 2014.
Table 1: Counties in the United States with the highest number of vehicle-related deaths in 2014.
Not surprisingly, most fatal car accidents occur in areas with large populations, such as counties that contain major cities (e.g., Los Angeles in Los Angeles County, CA, Houston in Harris County, TX, and Phoenix in Maricopa County, AZ). After all, more people means more potential for accidents to occur.
But what counties possess the highest number of vehicle-related deaths after accounting for population?
To answer this question, I’ll focus on the number of vehicle-related deaths per capita in each county, rather than total number of deaths. I’ll furthermore focus separately on what I consider to be moderately populated counties (those with at least 100,000 residents) and highly populated counties (those with at least 1,000,000 residents). I’ll ignore counties with fewer than 100,000 residents because, with just a few fatal automobile accidents, very sparsely populated counties will be over-represented on my final list.
Table 2 shows the 25 moderately populated U.S. counties with the largest number of vehicle-related deaths per capita in 2014.
Table 2: Moderately populated counties in the United States with the highest number of vehicle-related deaths per capita in 2014.
In 2014, Navajo County, Arizona had the highest vehicle-related fatality rate in the country, with 0.3515 fatalities per 1,000 residents and 38 deaths in total. This was followed closely by another Arizona county, Coconino County, which had 0.3268 fatalities per 1,000 residents and 45 deaths in total. Meanwhile, Sarpy County, Nebraska possessed the lowest vehicle-related fatality rate in the country for moderately populated counties, with 0.0174 fatalities per 1,000 residents and only 3 deaths in total.
Table 3 provides a similar rank-ordering in terms of vehicle-relate deaths per capita but for larger, more highly populated counties.
Table 3: Highly populated counties in the United States with the highest number of vehicle-related deaths per capita in 2014.
In 2014, San Bernardino County, California had the highest vehicle-related fatality rate in the country among highly populated counties, with 0.1316 fatalities per 1,000 residents and 278 deaths in total. This was followed by Hillsborough County, Florida, with 0.1200 fatalities per 1,000 residents and 158 deaths in total. Meanwhile, New York, New York had the lowest vehicle-related fatality rate in the country for highly populated counties, with 0.0238 fatalities per 1,000 residents and 39 deaths in total.
Finally, to better pinpoint potential areas of danger, I created a set of heat maps to display accident “hot spots” within the two counties found above to have the highest vehicle-related fatality rate in 2014 (i.e., Navajo County, AZ for moderately populated counties and San Bernardino County, CA for highly populated counties). Along with each map is a list of the top five roadways in each county where fatal automobile accidents were most frequent in 2014.
Figure 1: Locations of motor vehicle-related fatalities in Navajo County, AZ in 2014.
Rank Roadway Number of Fatalities (2014)
1 SR-73 4
2 US-160 4
3 US-163 4
4 SR-260 3
5 4th NORTH 2
Figure 2: Locations of motor vehicle-related fatalities in San Bernardino County, CA in 2014.
Rank Roadway Number of Fatalities (2014)
1 I-15 26
2 I-10 14
3 SR-210 13
4 I-40 12
5 SR-18 12
Driving Tip: Keep Your Eyes (and Attention) on the Road
Now if you’re a regular reader of my blog, you might be wondering at this point what any of this has to do with psychology. This is a generally a blog about human behavior and the field of psychology, after all. Well, consider the fact that distracted driving constitutes a leading cause of automobile accidents in the United States.
According to Distraction.gov, the official U.S. Government website for distracted driving, more than 9 people are killed and more than 1,153 people are injured each day in the United States in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver.
Moreover, distracted driving is a problem that seems particularly prevalent in the U.S. According to a 2011 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 69% of drivers in the United States (ages 18-64) admit to having talked on their cell phone while driving within the past 30 days. In Europe on the other hand, this percentage ranges from a mere 21% in the United Kingdom to 59% in Portugal. Furthermore, nearly half of all U.S. high school students aged 16 years or older admit to texting or emailing while driving.
Clearly, more work needs to be done to combat the problem of distracted driving in America. But in order for any effort to be successful, we need to better appreciate and understand the complexities of human attention.
Distraction is an inherent, fundamental component of attention, much like forgetting is a fundamental aspect of memory. As we know from decades-worth of research into human behavior and perception, attention is a limited cognitive resource. There’s no way around this fact, and this is the primary reason why humans are generally lousy at multi-tasking. At any given moment, attention can be stretched too thin or used up entirely – even by seemingly simple tasks, such as eating, thinking, listening to music, texting, or carrying on a phone conversation. And the consequences of distraction are, at once, dire, surprising, and fascinating. When our attention is depleted or directed elsewhere away from the relevant task at hand (e.g., driving), we are all – each of us – prone to make glaring errors in judgment and perception. This is most evident in the well-known phenomenon of inattentional blindness.
Inattentional blindness refers to our failure to notice large (seemingly obvious) events in our immediate surroundings while distracted by some secondary (often seemingly innocuous) task.
The most famous demonstration of inattentional blindness is the so-called “Invisible Gorilla Experiment,” conducted by Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Christopher Chabris of Harvard University. In this classic experiment, a revised version of earlier studies conducted by Neisser, Neisser and Becklen in 1975, participants were asked to watch a short video depicting two groups of people passing around a basketball. One team in the video wore black t-shirts and the other wore white t-shirts, and participants were instructed to count the number of passes made by one or the other team. In most instances, 50% of participants failed to notice that, while they were counting the number of passes made by one of the teams, a woman dressed in a gorilla costume walked, in full view, directly through the scene in front of them. The failure to notice this seemingly obvious event is what is known as inattentional blindness.
Inattentional blindness demonstrates just how important attention is to visual perception. And this phenomenon is part of the reason a distracted driver might legitimately fail to notice a pedestrian crossing the street in front of them. In a very real sense, distraction can render us temporarily blind to our surroundings.
So what can we do to combat distracted driving? Obviously, there is no simple answer. But a good start would be to implement strategies and interventions that are grounded in sound psychological science and rooted in an acknowledgement of the limitations of human attention. Despite the fact that many of us like to think of ourselves as competent multi-taskers, there’s simply no ignoring the fact that attention is a limited cognitive resource, and that it can be stretched only so thin. Therefore, rather than place all our trust in new technologies that do little more than enable dangerous behaviors, we should push for greater efforts to minimize distraction behind the wheel. And perhaps even more importantly, we should work to promote greater public understanding of the limits to human attention.
With this goal in mind, perhaps we will finally dispel one of the most persistent psychological myths of our time – that humans are capable of multi-tasking without incident, danger, or serious distraction.
Visit distraction.gov to learn more about the dangers of distracted driving, or to pledge to do your part to combat distracted driving.
If you’d like to learn more about psychological research into human attention, or if you’d like to witness the phenomenon of inattentional blindness for yourself, then click here to visit the research website of Dan Simons, Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
 Interestingly, my impression of the danger along the stretch of I-81 between Harrisburg and Hazleton, PA is not entirely off the mark. Schuylkill County, PA was ranked 21st in terms of most vehicle-related deaths per capita among moderately populated counties (see Table 2).
Brian Kurilla is a psychological scientist with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. You can follow Brian on Twitter @briankurilla