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Storm's silver lining: Death rate drops in wintry car crashes

Shawna Durlacher

A pile of semitrailers was part of an accident on Interstate 65 in Lafayette, Ind., on Saturday afternoon. Despite the dramatic scene, there were no deaths and injuries were reported to be minor.

As you white-knuckle the steering wheel through the blizzard on your commute route this week, know this bit of good news: If you get into a car crash, you're half as likely to die in it as you would be in nice conditions.

That may seem counterintuitive, but consider these numbers from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, crunched by researchers at Noblis.

The statistics show that during the period 1995 to 2008, an annual average of 190,100 crashes occurred on road conditions described as icy pavement, with 680 annual deaths. That’s a rate of 358 deaths per 100,000 crashes. The rate for conditions described as snow/sleet: 387. For snow/slushy pavement: 369. During the same period, the rate for crashes that weren't described as weather-related was about twice as high, about 727.

Driving in the rain or on wet pavement produced numbers higher than the "wintry" weather stats, but below the rate for crashes not blamed on the weather. Overall, 1,511,200 crashes on average annually were described as weather-related (some crashes fit multiple condition categories), with 7,130 people killed, for a rate of about 472 deaths per 100,000 crashes.

"Within the traffic safety community, the assumption is because the roadways are slippery, people tend to drive more cautiously and at lower speeds, therefore the fatal and serious injury crashes are less," said Renee Varone, senior research associate at the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research at the University of Albany in New York.

A 1998 study by the University of North Carolina backs that up, saying that while the overall risk of a crash rose in adverse weather, it appeared that driver caution and slower speeds led to less severe crashes.

But another factor is that fewer folks are out on the road, said Eric Rodgman, an analyst with the university's Highway Safety Research Center who was not involved in that study.

"Injuries and fatalities that might occur in really, really bad weather are lower simply because there's not as many people out there taking chances," Rodgman said.

One weather condition trumped all others, however: fog. The rate of deaths per 100,000 crashes in foggy weather was nearly 1,580. Fortunately there were only 38,000 of those crashes annually on average out of a total of more than 6 million for all conditions.

One more set of stats argues against the bad rap that winter gets for death on the road. According to a 2013 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, out of the 25 days of the year averaging the most deaths on the nation’s roads from 2007 to 2011, only one was in the winter: Jan. 1. But of the 25 days of the year with the fewest driving deaths, 23 were in the winter. Again, as Rodgman pointed out, far fewer miles are driven in the winter.