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The Car Death Belt: Where American Children Die In Car Crashes

Two thirds of all children who die from unintentional injuries die in car crashes. But some states have higher death rates than others.

Car crashes remain a leading cause of death for children in the United States. Boys remain twice as likely to die as girls. Older teens remain more likely to die than infants and toddlers. These are few signs of change when it comes to death on the road. That’s why data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is so interesting: The numbers show that despite the relatively constant rates of childhood death in car crashes, there is wide variation across states. Only about 0.005 percent of children in New Jersey died from transportation-related injuries between 2000 and 2005. In Mississippi, that rate was closer to 0.02 percent, or 1 in every 5,000 kids.

It is noteworthy that population density significantly skews the data. True, calculating deaths per 100,000 avoids a far bigger problem by controlling for car crashes per capita (New York is inevitably going to have more car crashes than South Dakota). But since there are nine million people living in New Jersey, and only about two million living in Mississippi, a single car crash will impact Mississippi’s score more severely. It’s an inevitable statistical inconvenience (overall population is doomed to impact the data). But it’s also seemingly part of the trend. States with the highest rates of transportation-related death tend to have lower population density.

Studies of car fatality variance have confirmed the existence of a phenomenon known as the Car Death Belt, a geographic area of danger running from the Deep South into the Great Plains states. Not only do these states tend to be less densely populated, there’s also an apparent correlation between car crash deaths, poverty, and large populations of blue-collar workers. It is possible that wealthier people drive less often or are in better overall health when they get behind the wheel. This may explain why states such as Mississippi, South Dakota, and Montana rank highest when it comes to transportation-related deaths among children—and why New York and New Jersey are relatively safe.

The CDC suggests parents buckle children in age- and size-appropriate car seats, booster seats, and seatbelts, citing data that car seat use reduces the risk for death to infants by 71 percent, and to toddlers by 54 percent. Slowing down would also go a long way toward saving lives. Studies have shown again and again that speed is the main factor in most fatal crashes. Pedestrians have a 10 percent chance of severe injury when hit by a car traveling 15MPH. That risk skyrockets to 50 percent when the car inches up to 30MPH.

“We have really good studies that show that, if we lower traffic speed, that results in the much lower incidence of severe injuries,” Robert James Schneider, who studies urban planning at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, once told Fatherly. “In particular, for kids within neighborhoods, speed is a key factor.”