On Election Day, Use Extra Caution When Driving

Voting is your civic duty, but be careful how you get to the polls. A new study suggests that there is an increased risk of car crashes on presidential voting days.

Dr. Donald Redelmeier is a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and an internist at the largest trauma center in Toronto. He sees lots of victims from car crashes, so he thinks a lot about cars and driving. That, coupled with his own experience hurrying to fit voting into a busy schedule, made him want to examine how the rush to get to the polls affects road safety on voting day.

"We studied all the U.S. presidential elections over the last 32 years, beginning with Jimmy Carter in 1976 and ending with George Bush in 2004," he says of the research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Consistent Findings

Redelmeier studied the U.S. in particular, he says, because this country maintains excellent statistics on vehicle crashes, noting exactly what time of day, when, where, vehicle, type and other information. He compared the number of crashes, injuries and deaths on Election Day Tuesday to the Tuesdays before and after.

His research revealed an 18 percent increase in motor vehicle deaths on voting day. "This equaled about 24 people [deaths] per election," Redelmeier says, adding that "this was remarkably consistent across different locations and years."

Redelmeier also found that about 800 more people suffered disabling injuries as a result of the crashes. These injuries and deaths far outnumber those reported during times associated with an increase in drinking and driving, such as Super Bowl Sunday and New Year's Eve. Unlike on those days, Redelmeier says, alcohol didn't seem to be an issue on voting day. And the crash rate didn't increase in the evening, when people might be more likely to drink.

It may just be that emotions run high on voting day, he says. "There's an election going on — everybody's talking about it, paying attention to polls when maybe they should be paying more attention to driving."

In the end, Redelmeier can't say exactly why people crashed. He thinks they may have been speeding, trying to fit voting into hectic schedules. Research has already shown speeding significantly increases the risk of car accidents and deaths.

On top of that, he says, there may be less police presence to monitor speeding on voting days "simply because police are busy themselves voting. And also a crackdown on motorists is a public relations loser, because it comes across as authorities interfering with the Democratic process."

The American 'Mindset'

Leonard Evans, a longtime traffic safety researcher who has published a number of articles and books on the subject, says part of the problem with automobile crashes in general has to do with the American "mindset" when it comes to car safety.

"When I talk to random people and they discover I do traffic safety, the reaction is very likely to be something about tires, crash tests, whether vehicles are likely to overturn, airbags, and which vehicle is safest," Evans says.

While the topics are important, Evans says, they pale when compared to the real culprits in traffic accidents: drivers, especially those who try to get around the law.

"Here in Michigan, as in most U.S. states, you can buy a radar speed detector," Evans says. "It's advertised in airline booklets. Its one and only purpose is to assist people to behave in such a way as to threaten other people on the road, to avoid speed traps so they can speed."

So the message for American voters on Election Day is this: Keep your eye on the road — and slow down.

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