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D.C. Tops Needless Death Highway Toll

A cardinal rule of writing about the District is to be wary of any ranking of the states that has D.C. at the very top or very bottom of the list. No matter how bad things are in the District, it's still important to be cautious about statistics that compare Washington to states, simply because of the difference in scale and the differences between large chunks of land that have a great variety of rural, urban and suburban settings versus the District's compact, all-urban environment.

That said, we're #1 again, this time on a ranking of states by what portion of their traffic deaths are alcohol-related. In the District, a whopping 54 percent of traffic fatalities are a result of drinking--way above the national average of 39 percent. Yet the D.C. number is not so far off the charts as to be obviously a result of the differences between an urban area and a more mixed state. Both Maryland and Virginia came in at slightly below the national average.

It does seem noteworthy that the District has few major highways and hardly any opportunities for the all-out speeding that accounts for a significant portion of the traffic deaths in most states. That would perforce push the District's alcohol-related number up, simply for relative lack of speeding deaths. Be that as it may, some readers take the stat as good cause to watch out, especially during a week such as this, when folks are drinking and driving more than usual.

"I'm going to be more careful crossing streets hereafter (I probably walk and run more in the District than drive)," says Bruce Milhans.

Does the District's ranking atop this list ring true to you, or does it seem a statistical artifact, a reflection largely of the District's difference from the rest of the land?

By Marc Fisher |  December 28, 2006; 8:52 AM ET
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Fisher, you don't get out in the rural areas much, do you? We have alcohol-related traffic accidents and deaths too. DC is "all-urban" is no excuse. Are you just snibbling because DC is not a state, and therefore, it's not fair to compare DC to real states?

Posted by: Hick | December 28, 2006 9:12 AM


You need not look further than DC's over-congested, underbuilt infrastructure to recognize why there are so many deaths. I highly doubt that a higher percentage of the population in DC drinks and drives than elsewhere in the country. The lack of sufficient through roads and highways increases the risk of accidents for any inattentive driver, whether drunk, inexperienced, tired, or in a hurry (which everyone in DC thinks they have the right to).

Your opposition to the ICC and other through roads will only lead to future deaths on the roads - think of all the people who have died on Norbeck Road in MoCo. Yes, many are due to drivers doing stupid things but decreasing the congestion greatly increases the liklihood of protecting innocent bystanders.

Posted by: Steven | December 28, 2006 9:45 AM

I'll bet the "alcohol-related" fatalies are because the jackbooted thugs of the Metropolitan Police Department regards 0.0 as a blood-alcohol level by which you can be stopped.

Goodbye, Charles Ramsey and your nurse-arresting minions! And Adrian Fenty, GET RID OF THE CAMERAS BEFORE THE RIOTERS GET SHOTGUNS AND BLAST THEM OFF THEIR PEDESTALS!

Posted by: Noogies | December 28, 2006 10:52 AM

Yeah, I think you're probably right that it's a statistical thing - we just don't have the opportunities for speed-related deaths here. Those stats that compare DC to states, or even to other cities, which usually encompass more suburban-like landscape, often don't make a lot of sense.

Posted by: h3 | December 28, 2006 11:01 AM

I don't know for certain, but doesn't DC have a higher level of alcohol consumption than many states?

Comparing other alcohol-related statistics to DC could help validate this finding, which does seem skewed since DC has so few highways. I'd also note that DC has more pedestrian traffic than many areas, which might bump the fatalities up.

I'd also ask how DC compares to other city-state like areas like New York City.

Posted by: RoseG | December 28, 2006 11:02 AM

I'll go with "statistical artifact," but only because "intentionally misleading scare tactic" wasn't an option.

The fact of the matter is, DC has an astonishingly low rate of traffic deaths. How low? I had occasion to look this up once: DC had 48 vehicular fatalities in 2005, or one for every 12,334 people. By way of comparison, South Carolina had 1,193 vehicular fatalities, or one for every 3,362 people. South Carolina's rate of traffic deaths is so high compared with DC's that it almost wipes out the difference in murder rates between DC and South Carolina.

So, if 54% of DC's traffic deaths were alcohol-related, that's about one death per 25,000 people. If (to quote the study) 42% of South Carolina's were, that's about one per 8,000. In other words, the incidence of drunken driving is probably around three times higher in South Carolina than it is in DC. This is the point that "Hick" misses -- nobody's saying that rural areas don't have plenty of drunk drivers, it's just that they can't drive so good when they're sober either, so the *proportion* of alcohol-related deaths is that much lower.

As for our "over-congested, underbuilt infrastructure," it almost certainly increases the traffic accident rate, but makes those accidents less likely to be fatal -- because, as Marc notes, it's hard to get up enough of a head of steam in DC traffic to kill another driver or yourself in a collision.

Posted by: quaker | December 28, 2006 11:51 AM

How drunk do you have to be before you decide that driving anywhere in DC is a good idea to begin with?

DC suffers from both a total lack of discipline on the part of its drivers - there is a pervasive sense that once the driver's side door closes, all laws are null and void - and a ridiculous, piecemeal approach to enforcement. Things like traffic cameras, drunk driving dragnets etc. are token efforts that are all about the appearance of law enforcement activity, and not at all about making the roads safer.

In my neighborhood, if drivers are not slouched back staring into space and yapping on cell phones, they are parked somewhere rolling a blunt (or worse). People treat traffic lights and signs, and sometimes pedestrians, as though they did not exist. Meanwhile the cops are always preoccupied with Something Much More Important That Is None Of Our Business.

What amazes me is that there is not a traffic fatality in the District every few seconds.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 28, 2006 11:52 AM

Marc, read Steven's reponse and the one above me and you've got a plethora of articles to write about for 2007.

Posted by: Bad Driving | December 28, 2006 12:11 PM

Me thinks this survey is a bit off. Comparing DC to states is a lser to being with as it is only a city. Second, how many of those deaths are of VA or MD residents? I do not even live in DC but tire of them being compared to states all the time. If so, then give them full voting rights!

Posted by: Tiredofitall | December 28, 2006 12:11 PM

Agree w/ quaker. This is another instance that shows you can prove anything with statistics. You'd think Washingtonians would be more suspicious of stats like this b/c of the govt/soc sci type of work so much of the city does.

A more useful stat would have been number of traffic fatalities per some number of miles traveled. Or fatalities per number of drivers (tricky b/c you'd need to include the suburbs). The ranking list would likely change depending on the ranking criteria--anyone of which would still be headline grabbing.

It's apples to oranges anyway b/c DC traffic accidents are different than an avg state accident b/c a greater percentage of DC accidents will involve pedestrians. I'd be more interested in seeing a ranking of metropolitan areas.

Posted by: booyah | December 28, 2006 12:17 PM

295, under any of its various monikers, certainly provides plenty of opportunity for all out speeding... and I've seen plenty of it while driving to and from Baltimore at all hours of the day and night. I've yet to see a major accident happen, but I've been delayed by and observed the remnants of several crashes that were either fatal or close to it.

Posted by: Falls Church | December 28, 2006 12:32 PM

as Tiredofitall states, stats such as those quoted by Marc do not distinguish between DC drivers and those from the burbs who are involved in a wreck while in DC. And contrary to what Anonymous claims, I see far worse driving on the part of folks from MD and VA (esp. MD) than those from DC. To all posters, let's try weaning ourselves from referring to these collisions as accidents. The overwhelming majority of them do not happen accidentally but because of the driver's (or, yes, the pedestrian's) intentional behavior, whether it's speeding, driving drunk, running red lights, talking on cell phones, etc. Let's stop pretending that these crashes are just random events for which no one is responsible. Otherwise, all the traffic safety measures in the world won't make a hill of beans of difference in the fatality and injury rates.

Posted by: ralph | December 28, 2006 1:03 PM

This simply gives the MPD another excuse for pulling over black people.

My friends and I have hung out in Adams Morgan and Georgetown, and watch the many, many drunk white people and nothing, not one cop surveying. These people literally, sway back and forth to their cars.

At one time we wrote down the license tag numbers in case something happened, but we stopped due to possibly being sued.

However, most black people in DC know this is an angle to pull them over for no reason other than being black.

I bet you if MPD blocked off Georgetown and Adams Morgan and tested people, they would find a large number of people very above the limit, but as we know that ain't going to happen, cause it hurts the businesses that are supported by their own.

Keep in mind we haven't even mentioned the many that come into the city from VA and MD.


Posted by: Different Angle | December 28, 2006 1:04 PM

quaker, I live in Maryland. Not South Carolina. Do don't know as much as what you thought you did! BTW, there are plenty of roads in DC that allows drivers to speed. Go do some more homework.

Posted by: Hick | December 28, 2006 1:24 PM

Since most of the drivers in DC have Maryland Licenses Plates, is the District getting BLAMED for Maryland Drivers bad habits? Say what you want, but to be honest, Maryland has the worst drivers in the area and usually when I see an accident in DC, its usually Maryland tags on the car. Sorry, just the facts.

Posted by: BIG WILL | December 28, 2006 1:35 PM

If the metro would be a little more useful (and cheaper), we wouldn't always need to drive into DC.

Posted by: Maryland | December 28, 2006 2:02 PM

Does the survey say if all the alcohol-related deaths are caused by drivers or if some are caused by drunk pedestrians?

Posted by: Maryland | December 28, 2006 2:05 PM

I wonder if we get Tuesday off?

Posted by: STick | December 28, 2006 2:06 PM

Did we get off the day of Reagan's funeral? I was home that day but I don't know if that was my AWS day or if I just took leave that day.

Posted by: Maryland | December 28, 2006 2:11 PM

So who comprises this half-assed organiztion self-named End NeedLess Deaths? Where did they get the data for ther press announcement? What analyses did they use to generate their list of the top 15 states? The press release is little more than a big line of horse manure.

Note how the top group of the 15 jurisdictions all have relatively small population compared with the rest of the states. You don't get to large populations until you come to the bottom of the 15, where Texas and Connecticut reside.

There is no way to compare state to state rates of alcohol-related traffic deaths without using statistics such as alcohol-related deaths per 1000 population, or alcohol-elated deaths per million miles driven.

It's time to start an organization called End Misleading Statistics.

Posted by: Mister Methane | December 28, 2006 2:19 PM

We got the day off for Reagan. What I can't remember is whether we got the day off b/c it was a national day of mourning, or b/c of the specific transportation/commuting problems that the procession through the streets would cause.

If it was the latter, I guess we won't get the day off this time, so I hope it was the former. Anyway, personally, I mourn Ford more than I would ever mourn Reagan. But anyway.

Posted by: Tuesday | December 28, 2006 2:29 PM

The funeral is on Wednesday.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 28, 2006 2:45 PM


Little Bush declared the day of Reagan's funeral a day or mourning by proclomation. On the day of the military kason(sp?), the local streets were blocked off, but that was during a work day.

BTW, I tried to look up the work kason(sp?), but I couldn't find it in the dictionary because I don't know how to spell it! Go figure!

Posted by: Maryland | December 28, 2006 2:45 PM

Gee, Big Will, here in Montgomery County, Maryland (or wherever I go locally), *every single time* I see some idiot in traffic, I look down to confirm a license plate that invariably reads "WASHINGTON D.C." or "VIRGINIA". It's become something of a game with me and my wife. "Yep, whadya expect?! Look at the license plate!" The worst drivers I've ever encountered hail from those two jurisdictions, in that order.

Just the facts. However, unlike you, I'm not sorry. The offending drivers should be, but the arrogance that pervades the populace of this entire area (Maryland included) precludes such.

I'm not a native Marylander, and I have no stake in the matter, this is simply my objective observation. I've driven in 47 of the 50 states (been to all), including most of the major cities--DC drivers are without question THE nation's worst in my experience, combining ineptitude, arrogance, and sometimes weaponry in a heady cocktail to embody a potent menace behind the wheel. Just add alcohol, and you can imagine... DC roads and signage, likewise, are the worst.

It is only after arriving here that DC's status as a barely-functioning "third-world" city is revealed (best-kept secret in the nation), and that status extends down to its roads and signage. It's pathetic, but again fact.

At any rate, a comparison of DC to other cities/metros would be as informative if not moreso, but I'd have no trouble believing excess alcohol-related deaths occur here. I've found people in this region, but especially in DC itself, to be quite rude in general, possessing a unique sense of entitlement that crosses any socioeconomic and class barriers, artificial or real, one might care to erect. I'm sure they'd have no problem thinking that drunk driving laws and the dangers of such stupid behavior simply don't apply to them. Forget skin color, forget license plate of origin (we're discussing deaths in the district, regardless of residency/origin, after all).

And yes, there are freeways, along with byways treated as such, where speed can be found in DC.

In a city that would reelect crack fiend criminal Marion Barry to the highest office (mayor), all bets are off. Take your lumps, DC, and do something about the problem.

-Get out yer flamethrowers!

Posted by: Beau Tochs | December 28, 2006 2:48 PM

Drive northbound on I270 the day before a holiday and the worst/rudest drivers will be those with DC tags.

Posted by: Agreeing with Beau Tochs | December 28, 2006 3:05 PM

OK, the funeral is Wed but the activities here in D of C are on Tuesday. They usually give us off to keep traffic malfunction down to a minimum.

Posted by: Stick | December 28, 2006 3:24 PM

I don't think we should properly refer to them as needless deaths. Since most car wrecks are not accidents, they are the result of someone doing something A) stupid, B) illegal or C) both I think we should term them needful deaths as they thin out the weak and the stupid from the collective gene pool.

Posted by: Darwin | December 28, 2006 3:27 PM

Hick, I'm not sure what you're trying to say. Did you think I thought you were from South Carolina? If so, that was never my intention; I used South Carolina as a counterexample because I'd had to look the statistics up before and still had them in electronic format for easy reference. But the message you're supposed to take home is that DC has a very low rate of traffic deaths. Which it does. And that's true no matter where you live.

What the hell, I'll do the math again just for you. In 2005, Maryland had 614 traffic fatalities (source: MADD), 38% of which were alcohol related (source: the study, but confirmed by MADD). That's one traffic fatality for every 9,120 people, which is very good compared to far less urban state South Carolina but pretty poor compared to far more urban DC. If 38% of those deaths were alcohol-related, that's one for about every 24,000 people, which is quite low. Almost as low as DC, even, which suggests that the incidence of drunken driving is basically the same in DC (#1 in the study) and Maryland (#26), but Maryland seems to have a far lower rate because it's so much easier to kill yourself or someone else while sober.

And, sure, it's possible to speed in DC. I see it every day, on pretty much every block. But speeding ain't the same thing as going fast; given the security features of modern automobiles you really need to get up to highway speed -- fast highway speeds -- to have a good chance of killing yourself or another driver in a car crash. You *can* do that in DC, particularly on I-295, but the vast majority of the city lacks highways, as suburban commuters never cease to complain. So, yeah, you've got some highways, and some highway deaths. And you've got your pedestrian deaths, which can happen at much slower speeds. But the general tendency is that much of the District is simply too congested for the kind of 80 MPH driving that turns even sober drivers into killers on a regular basis.

Posted by: quaker | December 28, 2006 3:27 PM

I don't think you can compare, as RoseG requests above, NYC and DC. NYC actually has a functional, 24 hour mass transit system, so you don't have to drink and drive after last call. Contrast with Metro, which even if it is still running, if you are from the burbs, you had to drive miles to catch anyway. And Metro does not conveniently serve Adams Morgan, for example, so if you go there, you're resigned to share the road with other drunks, even if you are DD.

Posted by: nocando | December 28, 2006 3:42 PM

I've never understood why Metro or the city doesn't offer cheap, reliable shuttle service from places like Adams Morgan or Georgetown to the nearest subway stop. They do it in other cities. Of course, that only makes sense if Metro itself were reliable, and anyone who's ever waited 15-20 minutes or longer for a late night train knows what I'm talking about.

Posted by: ralph | December 28, 2006 3:48 PM

What the hey, if this thread doesn't turn into your one-stop source for Ford funeral-related commute impact stories, some people might be interested in this:

I downloaded into a spreadsheet MADD's 2005 traffic fatality and alcohol incidence figures (the same as those in the study) and the July 2005 population estimates for all 50 states, DC, Puerto Rico and the country as a whole. Since there's nothing going on at work today, I ran my own analysis.

So, here's Quaker's list of top states for alcohol as factor in traffic fatalities per unit of population:

BEST: 1. Utah. 2. Massachusetts. 3. New York. 4. New Jersey. 5. Connecticut. 6. Minnesota. 7. Iowa. 8. Rhode Island. 9. Michigan. 10. Maryland.
WORST: 43. Missouri. 44. Louisiana. 45. North Dakota. 46. Alabama. 47. New Mexico. 48. South Dakota. 49. South Carolina. 50. Wyoming. 51. Mississippi. 52. Montana.

DC was 12th, but the July 2005 population estimates don't include the subsequent adjustment (which my earlier calculations did). With that adjustment, DC would jump up to 9th behind Rhode Island. Virginia was 16th.

And overall, both alcohol-related and not:
BEST: 1. Massachusetts. 2. New York. 3. Connecticut. 4. Rhode Island. 5. Washington DC. 6. New Jersey. 7. Washington. 8. Illinois. 9. Alaska. 10. Minnesota.
WORST: 43. Oklahoma. 44. Arkansas. 45. Kentucky. 46. South Dakota. 47. Alabama. 48. New Mexico. 49. South Carolina. 50. Montana. 51. Mississippi. 52. Wyoming.

Maryland was 11th, Virginia 19th.

This may not be the best comparison -- miles travelled would be nice to include -- but it may be more accurate than the other study.

1. Mormons don't drink much alcohol.
2. Urbanization (and thus congestion) correlates with lower traffic fatalities.
3. Lack of congestion correlates with higher traffic fatalities, unless you can get down to Alaskan levels of empty.
4. Iowans and Minnesotans really do seem to have come by their "nice" stereotype honestly.

Posted by: quaker | December 28, 2006 4:07 PM

quaker, since your're so interested in Ford's one-stop-funeral-shop, here is a link to the formal details:

Posted by: Anonymous | December 28, 2006 4:33 PM

For "Maryland," who was looking for a spelling: I believe the word is spelled caisson-even though it is pronounced kay-sahn. I think it is French.

Posted by: Jack | December 28, 2006 4:48 PM

Jack, thank you for providing the correct spelling. No wonder I couldn't find it in the dictionary!

Posted by: Maryland | December 28, 2006 5:01 PM

Different Angle: You seem to be forgetting that most DC cops are black. Are you somehow suggesting that black cops are targeting black drivers?

Posted by: Hillman | December 28, 2006 6:57 PM

Frightening. Some are posting that DC has a "good" rating when it comes to traffic fatalities. "Good" ratings based on miles travelled or on population.

What does that imply? Do the comments imply that DC doesn't have to take any action to reduce crashes and fatalities? Or does it imply that Marc should fry his Fishers elsewhere?

Does the comment imply that people are satisfied with the carnage? What would happen if there were no crash fatalities? Would there be a lottery to chose victims to appease the evil spirits? [pun intended] :-)

Don't expect coverage of fatalitiies by other reporters. Other reporters seem to be more concerned with health hazards of long distance commuting.

Complacency kills.

Posted by: Dick Boyd | December 28, 2006 7:02 PM

Hillman, black cops WILL target black drivers that is what they need to do to get recognized and promoted.
On another note, when people are commenting on drivers with Md and VA tags, are they considering those drivers that are leasing vehicles, which almost always have VA tags? I've never known of a leased vehicle with DC tags.

Posted by: Black or White | December 28, 2006 8:18 PM


Little Bush has declared Tuesday a day of mourning. Most federal offices are closed. Now, I need to solve this puzzle: Monday is my AWS day. Since Monday is a federal holiday, my AWS day moves to Tuesday. Since Tuesday is considered a day of mourning and government offices are closed, does my AWS day move to Wednesday? Ah, the complex world of a government worker!

Posted by: Maryland | December 28, 2006 8:36 PM


Compare the fatality rates per vehicle miles driven for the different types of roads.

Freeways have the lowest such number, yet DC lets itself be run by elitists who ignore this.

Posted by: Douglas Willinger | December 29, 2006 11:56 AM

IF the posted speed limits in DC were set for maximum safety using 85th percentile speed traffic safety engineering methods, the overall accident and fatality rates would go down significantly. The District could also throw away all the speed cameras because almost no one speeds enough to be ticketed if the posted limit is set for maximum safety.
The po$ted $peed limit$ in the Di$trict are $et in other way$ for other rea$on$.

Posted by: James C. Walker | December 29, 2006 12:48 PM

Would one of you hogs at the public trough please tell those of us in the real world what an AWS day is?

Posted by: I work for a living | December 29, 2006 1:09 PM

I work for a living,

Let me explain AWS to you:
Oink oink oink oink oink oink. Oink oink oink oink oink oink oink oink oink oink oink oink oink oink oink.
Do you understand now?

Posted by: Got It | December 29, 2006 1:25 PM

Thanks, "Got It",
That is pretty much the response I get whenever I need information from a government agency.

Posted by: I work for a living | December 29, 2006 1:47 PM

I work for a living,

Maybe you don't a decent answer because of the way that you ask the question! :)

Posted by: Got It | December 29, 2006 1:58 PM

Got It,
How would you know how I ask questions when attempting to elicit information (usually unsuccessfully) from a governmental agency? For the record, I try to "dumb down" my inquiries, speaking slowly and using one syllable words, and I am always polite and patient. Don't want to scare the inmates :-)

Posted by: I work for a living | December 29, 2006 2:17 PM

"AWS" means "alternative work schedule". I found it on google in about 10 seconds with no insults, no defensiveness, no evasiveness, and no sarcasm.

Posted by: jaded | December 29, 2006 2:55 PM

I am suspicious of activist-produced studies like this one because they are often tools used by the busybody class to create ever-increasing government regulation of personal life.

This one has all the hallmarks. It's written in the tone of "if it (insert new government regulation here) will save lives, it's worth it". It uses that mightiest of activist scare-speak words, "epidemic". It's kind of loosey-goosey with its definitions--what exactly does "impaired driving" mean? Does it mean driving while blasted on crystal meth? Or could it mean driving after taking some Nyquil for your cold? What about "alcohol-related"? Under some of the more stringent neo-prohibitionist interpretations, an "alcohol related" accident could mean having a beer with dinner, then swerving and hitting a light pole to avoid the kid that ran out in front of your car. Finally, it calls for more and more government supervision over people's lives. Think that they'll stop with ignition locks for first-time offenders? What some of them want is mandatory ignition locks on ALL cars for ALL drivers at ALL times.

Lots of people bemoan the death of common sense. A big part of that has to do with the endless parade of zealous issue activists, determined to enforce absolutist standards on the rest of us.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 29, 2006 4:16 PM

Thanks for the information, Quaker. The fact that DC has a very low vehicular death rate overall is revealing and creates a much more balanced overall perspective. Makes sense that rural states would have a greater overall vehicular death rate. The study, which supposedly is by a physicians' group aiming to lower avoidable death rates by bringing them to public attention, doesn't include such perspective. Their overall point is good, as anyone who has lost family members or friends in accidents that were totally avoidable if a drunken driver weren't involved appreciates. But it looks like the DC ranking is more a glitch than a reason for concern. Anyone have any idea how we rate in pedestrian accidents and deaths compared to other cities?

Posted by: Bruce Milhans | December 29, 2006 7:13 PM

"Anyone have any idea how we rate in pedestrian accidents and deaths compared to other cities?"

In order to find that out, a panel of highly-knowledgable bean counters would need to determine wether we have more Mexicans than other cities?

Posted by: What Traffic? | December 29, 2006 9:11 PM


That should have been done long ago.

Posted by: Ihatethecameras | December 30, 2006 8:52 PM

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