Don’t let election hype drive you to distraction (or death)

It was safer in the old days.

By Jonathan Purtle

Emotions rise high when election season rolls around every four ears. Could the culmination of this excitement and passion for political participation result in excess motor vehicle fatalities when Election Day finally arrives? A 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests so.

Using data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, the researchers tested how the number of fatal motor vehicle crashes on election Tuesdays in eight years when presidents were on the ballot compared with the number of fatal motor vehicle crashes on the Tuesdays before and after Election Day. Only fatal crashes occurring during local polling hours, between 8 a.m. and 7:59 p.m., were included in the analysis.

On the election Tuesdays between 1976 (Jimmy Carter) and 2004 (George W. Bush), 1,265 people died in motor vehicle accidents while the polls were open — an average of 158 deaths per day, 13 per hour.  The average for the two control Tuesdays was 134 deaths per day, 11 per hour. In other words, based on this comparison the risk of dying in a motor vehicle accident was 18 percent higher on Election Day than it was on the Tuesdays on either side. The researchers found that this increase in risk remained relatively consistent regardless of the age or sex of those involved in the accident, the location where it occurred – and, yes, whether a Democrat or a Republican won the presidency.

What factors could possibly cause our political process to result in an average 24 additional motor vehicle deaths each time we choose a president? Traffic volume is among the most likely culprits. Presidential elections mobilize more than half the voting age population — 130 million people in 2008 — to cast ballots.  Besides sheer volume, distracted driving (e.g., messing with the radio dial to get the latest exit poll results, and perhaps a bit of angst over what they are), traveling on unfamiliar roads (e.g., trying to find that obscure community center where you’re registered to vote), and a greater number of out-of-practice drivers behind the wheel (e.g., elderly people who no longer drive as frequently) all might have something to do with it.

The takeaway message from this study is not “don’t vote.” It’s just a bit of evidence that might make you want to be a little more careful driving — or even crossing the street —  on Nov. 6. And certainly don’t text and drive on your way to the polls — you could lose your life, and your candidate could lose the election.  

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