by James A. Bacon

I will concede this upfront: Bacon playing with statistics is like a toddler playing with a gun. Nothing good can come of it. With that word of warning, I ask readers to indulge me for a moment.

WalletHub, the financial advisory website, has come up with yet another listicle — a ranking of the 50 states (and Washington, D.C.) by the strictness of their speeding and reckless driving laws. This is a matter of more than passing interest to me because my son got his driver’s license just last week and my wife is a nervous wreck. Oh, no, it’s drizzling outside — the streets are dangerous. Oh, no, it’s bright and sunny outside — the glare can blind you. Readers who have had wives and teenage drivers know exactly what I’m talking about.

Back to WalletHub… It turns out that Virginia has the sixth strictest penalties in the country for speeding and reckless driving. Knowing the strictures put on teen drivers and drunk drivers, I can well believe that the traffic regimen is tough on speeders as well. But I asked myself a question that WalletHub didn’t answer: Do tough driving laws make a difference? Do they save lives, or do they just punish drivers for no reason?

In the spirit of social scientific inquiry, I compared the WalletHub ratings with data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety on the incidence of fatalities per 1 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT). The results can be seen in the chart above. The Y axis shows the WalletHub ranking, with the strictest states at the bottom and the most lenient states at the top. The X axis shows deaths per million VMT. The red dot shows Virginia.

Assuming I am analyzing the data properly (not something to be taken for granted), Virginia does seem to get some benefit from its strict speeding and reckless driving laws — but not as much as might be expected. The R², a measure of correlation, suggests that 5.6% of the difference in highway fatalities between states is explainable by the variation in speeding and reckless-driving penalties. That’s not a dominant determinant but a non-inconsiderable one. Yet the Old Dominion has the sixth strictest laws in the land but only the 11th lowest fatality rate.

Speeding enforcement and penalties are not the only means to reduce speeding. Other options include lower speed limits, road design and traffic-calming measures, and driver education, especially for young drivers. Other factors may come into play as well. Insofar as fatalities are correlated with driving speed, states with large rural populations driving on country roads may be at greater risk of fatalities, for instance, than largely urban states where city streets have lower speed limits. It is no accident that Washington, D.C. has a lower fatality rate per miles driven than any of the 50 states.

Could Virginia do a better job? My job is to ask the questions. Keener analytical minds are needed to come up with answers.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    THe most important thing you can do for you son – in my view – is to tell him under no circumstances should he be using his phone while he drives.

    ” Teen drivers distracted by cellphones, talking in most crashes”

    and hopefully – dad and mom practice what they preach.

    all the safety improvements made and all the stricter enforcement has been overwhelmed by people, ostensibly people with good judgement in other parts of their lives, being total idiots with their phones.

    It’s an epidemic… it truly is

    and it’s probably not going to be fixed by law enforcement but by the courts as those harmed file claims against those who were messing with their phones – and the insurance companies start excluding claims by irresponsible actions.. on the part of drivers.

    You know who some of the biggest offenders are – Adult women with kids.
    Of all people – you’d think Women with their own kids would not engage in such irresponsible behaviors putting their own kids at risk.

    ” “The National Safety Council reviewed 180 fatal crashes from 2009 to 2011… of those – 52% involved the us of cell phones.”

    I’d give another link …but… don’t fancy moderation hell..

  2. Having raised four teenaged drivers to near-adulthood (can’t claim they are all the way there even at 30), I do “know exactly what [you’re] talking about.”

    But it seems to me there are too many other significant factors along with the strictness factor that could skew the x axis (deaths per VMT) lower for VA. Less crowded roads for one. It’s just not obvious that it’s a correlation, not a coincidence.

    Now, adult women with kids in the car and a phone in hand — there’s a correlation for you!

  3. I have the “pleasure” of driving a lot in Virginia, Maryland and the suburbs of New York City. Driving in Virginia is a walk in the park vs Maryland and the New York City suburbs. Now, the average (or typical) driver in each of these locations is just fine. The problem lies in the number of idiots who feel compelled to drive 30 mph over the limit, tailgate and change lanes like Mario Andretti. Maryland and New York seem to create these road idiots at a far higher rate than Virginia.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      No body signals in Virginia, but I see more crazy turns from cars with Maryland plates. I’ll take LA over our drivers here.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      I would submit DOn – that the idiots are comprised of two primary groups – cell phone users and Millennials…!!

      I just love it when I come up behind someone fiddling with their phone with a idiot Millennial glued to my rear bumper!

      We have a lot of NoVa escapees living down our way – they can live a lot higher on the hog than in NoVa but they are, without a doubt, some of the most obnoxious and impolite drivers I’ve ever seen in my life and that includes the folks I’ve seen in Boston, Chicago.. and Houston – although Houston is close..

    3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Don – Uber drivers unanimously confirm your observation re Maryland drivers near DC.

  4. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    Late to the party here, but it’s the certainty of punishment not the severity that reduces criminal/law breaking behavior.

    Even though it would probably be harder to capture, I am curious how the deployment of our state highway patrol measures up to other states. And if other states’ highway patrol pinch you for lower level speeding violations. I’ve been driving in Virginia for roughly 16 years abiding by the “+10 on the locals, +15 on the highways” rule for maximum speed over the speed limit and have gotten exactly one speeding ticket.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      If we really want to talk about enforcement – we should talk cameras.

      I’d only make one change – the fines would never go to a locality – they would always go to VDOT – specifically for safety and congestion relief.

      I’d not put them up indiscriminately. I’d put them up only where the number and/or severity of accidents and enforcement tickets were already higher than average. And I’d make cell phone use – captured on camera as a costly offense.

      People do not take driving seriously in this country and it is the source of many accidents and road rage incidents.

Leave a Reply