Cars are inherently risky. That’s why we wear seat belts, lock our vehicles and buy auto insurance.
But a new analysis shows the biggest risks aren’t the same from city to city — even among the places that are the most dangerous for drivers.
NerdWallet analyzed data for nearly 200 of the most populous U.S. cities, scoring them on fatal accidents, average number of years between accidents, accident likelihood and the risks of having your car stolen or broken into.
Detroit received the lowest score, making it the most dangerous of the cities we surveyed. The Motor City was followed by Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Baltimore; Springfield, Massachusetts; and San Bernardino, California. What put these cities in the bottom five of the rankings varied.
Crime, fatal accidents are major dangers
Detroit scored poorly on many data points, but it stood out compared with other risky cities for auto-related crimes.
Owen Matson, a 16-year resident of Detroit and frequent driver, says he’s never been in a car accident. But car-related crime is a different story.
“I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve had my car broken into — maybe dozens,” says Matson, a business owner and father of two.
Detroit earned the “least safe” designation and some of the highest risk scores found in auto larceny and motor vehicle theft data from NeighborhoodScout. But, in a bit of good news, the likelihood of being involved in a crash in this city is just 17% higher than the national average, according to the analysis.
In Baltimore, the third-most dangerous city for drivers, it’s a different story: The risk of being in a crash is 114% above the national average. The average number of years between accidents — just 4.7 — was one of the worst rates in the analysis. However, Baltimore had a relatively low rate of 4.7 fatal crashes per 100,000 residents.
Baton Rouge had the worst score of all cities for fatal accidents, with a rate of 16.6 deadly wrecks per 100,000 residents in 2014. On the other hand, the Louisiana city was the only one among the 20 most dangerous places that didn’t earn a “least safe” designation for motor vehicle theft.
Staying safe no matter where you drive
Many factors contribute to how dangerous a city is for drivers. Rich Romer, who manages state relations for AAA, pointed to what’s known in the traffic safety world as “LEEEF.”
“That’s laws, engineering, education, enforcement and funding of infrastructure,” Romer says. “You can likely see several of these play out across these cities.”
For a city to be as safe as possible for everyone on the road, all of these factors need to be functioning well. Even though drivers can’t control things like road design and funding, there are some steps they can take to reduce their risks. Romer says simple precautionary measures like buckling up “in every seat and every ride,” obeying the speed limit and not driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs can go far in saving lives.
As for protecting yourself from auto-related crime, Matson, the Detroit resident, has some advice.
”Everyone in Detroit knows you never leave anything visible in your car,” he says. “And you would think I mean anything valuable, but no, I mean anything. I’ve had dirty laundry stolen out of my car twice.”