A geography lesson, with automobiles

A few fleeting thoughts about these maps:

  • I notice that the two states in which I lived the longest, Washington and Minnesota, are among the safest. Coincidence? I think not.
  • I have driven across North Dakota and Montana and Idaho. Those bloody dark colors do not lie, although they and Wyoming are also among the more thinly populated states.
  • What’s going on in the deep South? Those are places I’ve rarely visited, again suggesting the importance of my talismanic presence.
  • Of course, everyone in Europe must be better drivers than most Americans. Or, possibly, they are sensible and don’t drive as much.
  • I am intrigued by the mysterious vast empty space in the North Sea. Is it possible that a hidden land mass lurks somewhere in the open ocean there?
  • Avoid Wyoming at all costs.


  1. says

    I once drove up to Wyoming from Denver for a math conference in Laramie. The car rental agencies at the Denver airport didn’t have a lot to pick from, so I ended up driving I-25 in a big sedan the size of a battleship. Safety, right? Actually, most of the other vehicles were gigantic, too. Lots of big cars and truck in Colorado and Wyoming! But that was years ago. Maybe they’ve downsized since then. Maybe not.

  2. blf says

    I am intrigued by the mysterious vast empty space in the North Sea. Is it possible that a hidden land mass lurks somewhere in the open ocean there?

    The Adriatic Sea is also intriguing with an eastern coastline that seems to offer many possibilities. Sweden has a hitherto-unnoticed western coastline with the North Sea. And there’s an enormous previously-unknown glacier or inland sea in the Alps. 🤔

  3. brucej says

    Wyoming has enormously long stretches of highway with very little traffic, high speeds and open range. A recipe for hitting a cow at 80MPH in the middle of the night. (One time we stupidly miscalculated a trip through that part of the country during Sturgis; we originally intended to stay in Cody, as we had been travelling eastward from Yellowstone NP. We ended up driving to Thermopolis (at 3AM!) before finding a place to stay. Long roads + fatigue + zero traffic made it a scary drive. )

    It also has very few people so this is mostly an effect of edge-cases. a handful of traffic deaths can greatly shift the numbers per million when you only have a population of half a million. 160/million = 80 people died in traffic accidents.

  4. consciousness razor says

    What’s going on in the deep South? Those are places I’ve rarely visited, again suggesting the importance of my talismanic presence.

    There are much more extensive public transportation systems in the green and yellow areas generally. (Even more so in the case of Europe.) And in, say, Nevada or Utah or Colorado, the population is heavily concentrated in a couple of large cities and practically empty elsewhere. Similar to Minnesota, where most are in the Minneapolis area, which has a range of public transportation options — the rest of the state is so sparsely populated it hardly makes a difference.

    In most of the reddish and dark gray areas of the South, Midwest, and Rocky Mountain states, there are still a sizeable number of people moving around. It’s not like we’re in the middle of a desert or mountains or something, but people are generally more spread out in smaller cities and towns. It’s pretty normal to be driving much longer distances to get to the next interesting place (for your job, to go shopping, for recreation, or whatever it may be). So we’re using roads more, because we have few if any other options — not even buses for the most part, although those would be safer.

  5. Ørjan Hoem says

    Like it says on the map, it depicts the European Union, not Europe. That’s why it doesn’t include Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, etc.

  6. Rich Woods says

    I’m very pleased to see that the UK has registered zero road deaths now that we’ve left the evil clutches of the EUSSR. Jacob Rees-Mogg (the Honourable Member of Parliament for the 18th Century) was tasked by our revered leader with identifying the advantages and opportunities of Brexit last February, and it seems that he has at last found one. All hail the true-blue Great British EU-free non-killing Great British roads! Hail! Hail!

  7. says

    Another factor in those deadly states is that if you do get in an accident somewhere in a long empty stretch, you’re a long way from a hospital, which may increase lethality.

    I’ve driven through Wyoming multiple times. We always scheduled our trips so we were rolling through the big empty in daylight.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Is it possible that a hidden land mass lurks somewhere in the open ocean there?

    As long as anyone has collected the statistics, traffic fatalities have stayed at zero across Atlantis.

  9. consciousness razor says

    Another factor in those deadly states is that if you do get in an accident somewhere in a long empty stretch, you’re a long way from a hospital, which may increase lethality.

    That’s better at explaining some places like Montana, Wyoming, and maybe the western parts of the Dakotas and Nebraska.

    But you’re not generally not that far (i.e., not middle-of-nowhere empty for dozens of miles) from some kind of hospital in the remainder of the South and Midwest. Outside of the larger cities, they don’t generally have the kinds of advanced equipment, specialists, resources etc. that you’d find in some hospitals, but they can at least treat injuries from car accidents. (Presumably, they get more practice with it too.) That said, I’m sure it doesn’t help even if you or the ambulance have to travel a “mere” 10-20 miles (as opposed to 50-60 or whatever) to and from the site of an accident.

  10. James Fehlinger says

    What’s going on in the deep South?

    Don’t tell me where I can take my guns, and don’t tell me how
    fast I can drive my pickup!

    There’s a novel I read a few years ago after seeing a review
    of it in the NY Times. It’s a dystopian near-ish future in which
    the Feds attempted to ban fossil fuels, precipitating a new
    civil war.

    It also smacks a bit of a revenge fantasy — the author has
    Egyptian roots, and in the novel there’s a new polity in the
    Middle East called the “Bouazizi Empire” that’s keeping the chaos
    going in the erstwhile U.S. by providing illicit aid (and terrorist
    training) to the rebels.

    The vehicles still (legitimately) in use are (apparently)
    disparagingly referred to as “tik-toks”, which makes them
    sound considerably less cool than Teslas. I can’t remember
    whether they’re supposed to be electric, or literally
    spring-powered. ;->

    ‘American War,’ by Omar El Akkad
    Michael Berry
    June 29, 2017

    What might happen if a divided United States turned its weapons
    on its own people? That’s the unsettling premise of Omar El Akkad’s
    debut novel, “American War.”

    Near the start of this frightening and heartbreaking book, El Akkad
    explicitly summarizes the novel’s vision of the future. The
    Second American Civil War lasted from 2074 to 2093, fought between
    the Union and the secessionist states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia
    and South Carolina. (Originally an ally, Texas was annexed by Mexico.)
    The primary cause of the conflict was the Sustainable Future Act,
    prohibiting the use of fossil fuels anywhere in the U.S. . . .


    . . .

    The titular American War is between Blues and Reds — nominally, North and South —
    and began, we’re told, when the South refused to abide by energy restrictions
    enacted in response to accelerating climate change. (The reader who studies the
    novel’s 2075 maps will see no trace of Cape Cod or Long Island, no New Orleans
    or Florida — “the edges of the land shaved off” by water.) Proud citizens of the
    “Free South” are once and future Rebels: “A man caught using fossil fuel in these
    parts was still an outlaw,” and “It said something to own a vehicle that still
    ran on prohibition fuel; it spoke not only of accumulated wealth, but of connections,
    of status.” . . .

  11. says

    When it comes to road vehicles, I think a big part of it is that America simply drives more. In Europe, it’s not unusual for people to not have driver’s licenses at all.
    I wonder how these maps would look if we had better resolution.

  12. says

    I do wonder what role age plays in this. To my knowledge, nowhere in the EU are driver’s licenses issued before 18 years of age, whereas AFAIK in some US states 14 years old children are allowed to drive a car. And I have experienced traffic both in the USA (Idaho, Utah, California) and the EU (CZ, DE), and in my opinion, people in the EU are, on average, much safer drivers. For example, one sees rarely, if ever, someone take a turn without signaling lights in the EU, whereas it was a common occurrence in the USA.
    Car size might also play a role – in the USA people drive bigger and stronger cars on average, which might give them a false sense of security.

  13. daved says

    I thought it might correlate to seat belt usage, but from the stats I could find, it doesn’t particularly. Massachusetts has one of the lowest usage rates in the country. In fact, Mass has one of the highest rates of motor vehicle crashes, but one of the lowest rates of fatal crashes. I’ve attributed this to the highways being so crowded that you frequently can’t get up to a speed high enough to kill you — probably not true.

  14. consciousness razor says


    I wonder how these maps would look if we had better resolution.

    Exactly the right question.

    It’s basically the same issue with our talk of “red states” and “blue states,” when really you can see at the county level that things are more complicated (but for reasons that are comprehensible, mainly boiling down to population density). When you look at it at the scale of entire states and try to reason about that, it doesn’t make much sense, and that’s because you were tossing out relevant data (or not collecting it) about the distribution at much smaller scales.

  15. blf says

    Quality of roads is another possible factor: How well they are built, maintained, etc.

    In the States, as far as I can now recall, road-building is usually a (relatively) local affair, presumably with somewhat varying standards and sometimes-questionable inspection, built by the lowest bidder, then maintained on a minuscule budget.

    Here in France the roads seem to be usually in immaculate condition, built to national(? EU?) standards. Whilst Ireland is still playing catch-up (or at least was when I lived there), EU funding has greatly improved the quality of the roads (and other infrastructure) there. And presumably so on throughout the EU.

  16. numerobis says

    blf: The nationales and autoroutes are great. Some of the départementales can be pretty rough.

    But the weather is also much more temperate. Not as much freeze-thaw except in the mountains. And a lot fewer heavy trucks.

  17. Alverant says

    I don’t think we can do a single cause and effect comparison. There’s so many differences within the US without even factoring Europe. Things like driving age, drinking age, enforcement of laws, big empty roads, road conditions, distance to medical help, cost of gas, etc. Americans drive more so we have more deaths. What I’d like to see is a map breaking it down into deaths per million miles driven instead of deaths per million people.

  18. ethicsgradient says

    astringer’s Wikipedia page in reply #15 gives deaths per billion vehicle km for several developed countries, which comes from this OECD report (which has figure for 1990, 2000, 2010 and 2016, so you can see improvements – or not): https://www.itf-oecd.org/sites/default/files/docs/irtad-road-safety-annual-report-2018_2.pdf

    In 2016, the Czech Republic was 11.5 – worse than the USA at 7.3, and Belgium was also 7.3. The (now) non-EU European countries do best – UK, Switzerland and Norway, all under 3.4 (UK’s figure is actually 2010). The big EU countries are Germany at 4.2, and France at 5.8.

    Back in 1990, the USA was one of the best countries, per km, but others have overtaken it. Whether that’s because the USA used to be a leader in safety regulation, but the EU overtook it, or a difference in population attitude, I suppose no-one can say.

  19. ethicsgradient says

    And another thing probably responsible for the improved statistics – better trauma treatment. Again, it’s possible the USA was a leader in 1990 in that.

  20. says

    @ethicsgradient, that is quite an interesting report. I glanced at several of the graphs in there and it seems that whilst things here in EU got better between 2010-2016, in the USA it got worse instead. Except for the one metric you mentioned, in every other metric the USA fares worse than the Czech republic. As in, an increase in the number of dead people in accidents as a percentage of the population, of all ages, pedestrians and drivers and cyclists alike in this period.
    I think that in CZ there are more people dead per distance traveled because the Czech Republic is pretty cramped, full of obscure and difficult to navigate roads, often in bad condition, and very few highways. Most people drive only short commutes, or occasionaly.

  21. says

    As few above stated, definitely deaths per million and deaths per million kilometres/miles will tell different story.
    In Europe you rarely do trips over 6-10 hours and a lot of those trips can be done by train so average european drives way less kilometres than average american drives miles.

    Here you have a bit more detailed infographics, have fun with polish (numbers are the same everywhere)

    Definitely EU for years invests a lot into infrastructure and traffic rules. For example narrower streets cause people to drive slower, lower speed limits, better lights on pedestrian crossings, more barriers, more interchanges in crossroads that are designed to limit the amount of colliding traffic.
    This really works.
    25 years ago, before Poland got into EU, there was around 1mln cars in Poland and 7k deaths per year. Now it’s about 2 mln cars and around 3k deaths.

    Just last year a new law was passed, that pedestrians on the “zebra” has right of way ALWAYS.
    And just in one year number of dead pedestrians dropped 39% and wounded dropped 35%.
    Main reason is that now drivers whenever they see a pedestrian crossing, start ACTIVELY looking for pedestrians and that’s why they notice them.
    Human perception of the world is deeply flawed and unless we actively look for something we are likely to miss it.

    So maybe lower age of US drivers, more miles or fatigue of drivers plays a role, but infrastructure and rules really work

  22. Jazzlet says

    In the case of the UK considerable spend on road safety campaigns for years. When I was a Road Safety Officer back in the 80s we ran summer and Chrismas drink driving campaigns, back to school autumn campaigns about getting to school safely in the dark, child seat campaigns (this was before it was illegal to have a child in a car without an appropriate child car seat), rear seat belt use campaigns (again before the use of rear seat belts was made compulsory), along with one offs usually linked to one of the other campaigns. The one offs might be, say the remains of a car which looked like it had been crushed (it had, under an artic) on the city square, with the baby car seat that had protected the baby who didn’t have a scratch despite the mangled wreckage -the mother wasn’t so lucky but still survived or the display with the photographs of the car in which two couples who were recently retired, life long friends going on holiday, husbands in the front wearing their seatbelts, wives in the back not wearing seatbelts, they didn’t get their holiday because there was a head on collision and as the wives were thrown forward through the windscreen they each broke their husbands neck and killed him, both wives survived.

    There was also a lot of money spent on research into what made roads safe, although for too many years that was focused on what made roads safe for car drivers and passengers which often didn’t make the roads safer for cyclists or pedestrians. In addition there was reserch into what happened to cars in accidents so legally enforceable vehicle standards could be improved. Oh and of course the MOT, a road worthniness test each car over three years old has to pass to continue to be on the road.

    TL;DR The UK along with the rest of Europe put a lot of work into getting the road death figures down, and continues to do so.

  23. says

    Regarding Wyoming, I don’t have the link handy, but what I have heard is a big problem is I-80 in the winter. It’s a major semitruck route and so they’ll have huge pile-ups from those semitrucks crashing in winter storms.

  24. blf says

    Jazzlet@27, Oh yeah, the MOT, I’d forgotten completely about that (having not bothered to own a car for about two decades now, albeit I am still licensed to drive). That last car I owned passed its MOT(s?) in the UK, but failed the then-new (and at the time, more comprehensive than the UK) version in Ireland. Some relatively trivial issue, no problem to fix, but I was impressed with both the thoroughness and professionalism.

    There was nothing at all in California at that time (dunno about now), nor, I presume, elsewhere in the States (then (as far as I can recall), and I presume, now). At the time I lived in California, emissions tests were just being introduced. Those emissions tests should, albeit indirectly, improve the “fleet”, albeit perhaps not too much on a crash-safety level.

    I ended my car ownership before the MOT-equivalent was due here in France (contrôle technique), so I cannot compare from my experiences. Some admittedly quick Generalissimo Google™ suggests the EU is trying to introduce uniform (minimum?), possibly annual, inspections.

  25. Bruce says

    Another factor is city design. In Europe and a few big cities, people can get key groceries without driving. In most of the US, especially suburbs, such designs are illegal, per zoning laws.
    US city planners say “I’d rather die than have a store within walking distance”.

  26. Tethys says


    18 years of age, whereas AFAIK in some US states 14 years old children are allowed to drive a car.

    You can get a drivers license at 16, but farm kids usually learn to drive various farm vehicles at about 12-13 as long as they aren’t out on public roads. I was driving long before I took drivers education in high school. ( but that’s out in the country, where there is nothing to hit but fence posts and cattle, and no police to ticket you).

  27. jrkrideau says

    @ 17 blf

    Here in France the roads seem to be usually in immaculate condition, built to national(? EU?) standards.
    Nonsense. Once when cycling in France, just outside Chantilly, IIRC, I saw a sign saying ” Attention, Nid de Poule”. About twenty minutes diligent work with my E/F Larousse suggested a pot hole.

    Of course here in Canada some cities have pothole of the week competitions on the radio in the spring.

  28. Jazzlet says

    blf @30

    Yeah, you virtually never hear of an RTC* caused by a vehicle fault here, and if you calim “the brakes just failed” as justification for an injury RTC there’ll be a police mechanic taking your car apart to check.

    The change to stop calling these incidents Road Traffic Accidents and start calling them Road Traffic Collisions has also had a positive impact, traffic police will want to know why you crashed, especially if you hurt someone, whereas before they did tend to have an “oh well, accidents will happen” attitude. Changing the law so you can get sent to prison for years for killing someone with your vehicle undoubtedly helped as, hit-and-runs aside, they are relatively easy crimes to solve helping forces meet their targets.

  29. blf says

    jrkrideau@34, As you yourself quoted, I said “usually“. What is nonsense about that qualification ? For feck’s sake, by your own account, there was a sign warning of the problem !

    Feck off, Putin-addled troll.

  30. Tethys says

    Minnesota does spend a huge amount on road maintenance and repair, and also has to contend with severe winter weather. We don’t get as many blizzard type storms, those tend to be associated with the western prairie states.

    I did notice that several of the states with the highest deaths per capita are also states where the Interstate and highway speed limits are highest. You are more likely to survive a crash at lower speeds, and more likely to die on impact at speeds above 80 mph.

  31. leovigild says

    I have driven a lot in Spain — literally tens of thousands of miles, in all kinds of areas — urban, suburban, rural. And I can attest that you hardly ever see any accidents in Spain. I’ve seen only a handful in all of that driving.

  32. says

    NBC (2021) – “Black people are more likely to die in traffic accidents. Covid made it worse.”:

    Black people represented the largest increase in traffic deaths last year than any other racial group, even as Americans drove less overall due to the pandemic, according to recently released data.

    An estimated 38,680 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2020 — the largest projected number of deaths since 2007, according the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The number of Black people who died in such crashes was up 23 percent from 2019, the largest increase in traffic deaths among racial groups, according to the administration’s report.

    Norman Garrick, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Connecticut, said the numbers are saddening, but not surprising.

    “Black people tend to be overrepresented as walkers in this country,” Garrick said. “This is not by choice. In many cases, Black folks cannot afford motor vehicles. And people that walk in this country tend to experience a much, much higher rate of traffic fatality. We’re talking eight to 10 times more. It’s a perfect storm of a lot of horrible forces.”

    This most likely represents yet another way the health crisis has had an outsize effect on Black people. Even in the early days of the pandemic, the National Safety Council found that the emptier roads were proving to be more deadly, with a 14 percent jump in roadway deaths per miles driven in March. And Black people are more likely to face traffic injuries in general; from 2010-2019, Black pedestrians were 82 percent more likely to be hit by drivers, according to a 2021 report from Smart Growth America, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group focused on urban development.

    Calvin Gladney, president of Smart Growth America, said the pandemic has only exacerbated the longstanding problem. He said there are three major reasons Black people bear the brunt of roadway injuries: infrastructure, design and racism. Predominantly Black neighborhoods are less likely to have crosswalks, warning signs and other safety mechanisms, he said. And many high-speed highways are in or go through communities of color, thanks to a federal effort in the 1950s to modernize the nation’s roadways.

    “These fatalities have been going upward for a decade,” Gladney said. “You go to Black and brown communities, you go to lower-income communities and you don’t see many sidewalks. You don’t see as many pedestrian crossings. The types of streets that go through Black and brown neighborhoods are like mini highways where the speed limit is 35 or 45. You see this disproportionately in Black and brown communities often because of race-based decisions of the past.”

    Little to no infrastructure funding means those in Black neighborhoods live with poor roads, dangerous proximity to waste sites, little access to public transportation and more. Along with the systemic nature of this problem, Gladney pointed out that social racism also plays a role in the rising number of traffic fatalities. A 2017 study from the University of Nevada found that drivers are less likely to slow down or stop for Black pedestrians than they are for white ones.

    Gladney said that efforts like President Joe Biden’s proposed $2 trillion American Jobs Plan, which includes efforts to make public transportation more accessible and improve road safety, are necessary, and that although the situation is dire “it’s fixable.”

    He said small policy changes like lowering the speed limit in some areas could save hundreds of lives each year. Federal efforts like the 2021 Complete Streets Act — introduced by Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. — would ensure public roads are safe and accessible for multiple modes of travel.

    “The pandemic illuminated issues that people have been ignoring,” Gladney added. “These are the same streets and the same roads that have always been there. If we have intentionality to get to racial equity and close the disparities, we actually can fix this.”

  33. blf says

    leovigild@39, That reminds me of a sortof-hilarious story from when I was living in Ireland (very rainy place). I was seconded to a facility in Sanford (California), and the Irish / European travel-staff, not realising there’s a long distance between Sanford and San Francisco, booked me into accommodation in SF (in the Pacific Heights area, so I didn’t complain!). But it did mean an hour(?)’s drive to the Sanford facility. One day it was raining cats, cows, and small whales, so I was driving very carefully, and noticed multiple things, including (but not limited to): Other people were going much faster, and lots of accidents / crashed-cars by the side of the road.

    However, “European” drivers can also be eejits: One example, from a few years earlier, on the Isle of Sky. A single-track road (i.e., one lane, not one lane in each direction, just one lane, with occasional places to pull over so traffic could pass). And a steep hill. Rule is the car going uphill has priority, as it’s very difficult to reverse downhill. Near the top of the hill, me climbing, another car appears and simply wouldn’t budge (despite there being a pull-over not too far behind them, further up the hill). Eventually, I gave in and VERY carefully reversed back down to the lower pull-over, with the fecking eejits not too far “behind” me all the way down (very little room to maneuver).

  34. PaulBC says

    blf@41 I assume you mean “Stanford” unless I’m really confused.

    The other thing about the SF Bay Area is that it does not rain at all for about half the year (even without the longterm drought conditions we’re experiencing now) so the first rain of the season brings traffic to a screeching halt. I don’t know if people forget how to drive in rain or it’s just that every year brings in a bunch of people unused to driving in rain. Combine that with a freeway like I-280, which is how you’d probably get between SF and Stanford, and there’s a serious hazard. You may be flying along at 75 miles an hour and run into stopped traffic over a hill or around a curve. (Though it’s my favorite freeway in good weather and light traffic. Very scenic and with roadside novelties like the Flintstone house and the gnomelike statue of Junipero Serra).

    You said you lived in Santa Cruz, so maybe you’ve also had the joy of driving over Highway 17. That’s a piece of cake if you actually follow the speed recommendations around curves. Unfortunately, the cars behind you and the ones passing you don’t want to do that. That was my commute for a year or two and I eventually got comfortable with it.

  35. blf says

    PaulBC@41, Yes, my bad, I meant Standford.

    And yes, it was I-280. And yes, I have driven Highway 17 many times; as you say, if you stick to the limits (and observe careful inter-car distancing), it’s Ok, but that (at that time, and I presume still now) made you an obvious outlier.

    I’ve also driven Highway 1 — LA↔SF, albeit never in one journey — (and bicycled LA→SF) which is similar to Highway 17: Stick to the limits, maintain good inter-car distancing, and be alert and prepared for anomalies (and check beforehand for landsides, etc.!) Again, not a problem, except you can be an outlier, with some very scary overtaking by eejits on blind curves.

  36. ajbjasus says

    Somewhat counterintuitively to many, big trucks and 4x4s are more dangerous than well designed normal cars, Although unfortunately their numbers are growing in uk and Europe, they are not as predominant as in the US especially in those southern states.

  37. macallan says

    Don’t know about the other states, but… it’s ridiculously easy to get a TN driver’s license. Pass a stupidly simple multiple choice test, then drive 5 minutes around the block without hitting anything, and you’re done.
    Of course there’s a wreck on the part of 11E that I have to drive on pretty much every day.

  38. ethicsgradient says

    Numbers of pedestrians killed per year for many countries here: https://w3.unece.org/PXWeb/en/Table?IndicatorCode=59

    Not per capita, but you can work out a rough ratio from knowing rough populations; the USA has about 5 times the population of the UK or France; USA 2019 deaths 6205, UK 487, France 468, the USA is about 2.5 times the rate of those 2. Canada was 314, and is about a ninth of the US population, so about US is about 2.2 times Canada. The US numbers have gone up considerably in recent years; other countries are flatter.

    Driver inattention – eg using a cellphone – has been suggested as a cause of recent increase in accidents.

  39. littlejohn says

    This correlation may be meaningless, but I suspect the states with the most traffic fatalities are also the states with the largest proportion of large, four-wheel-drive vehicles, particularly pickup trucks. It’s possible you’re safer inside such a tank, but lots of luck to anyone you collide with.

  40. ajbjasus says


    Nope, they are more dangerous even I& you’re inside.

    Strange, eh?