Wow: North Dakota's Oil Patch Traffic Fatality Rate Hasn't Increased From A Decade Ago


I went on a mission to track down data for traffic and fatality rates in North Dakota – particularly in the oil patch – and what I ended up finding shocked me. As it turns out, the traffic fatality rates in western North Dakota really haven’t increased at all over the last decade.

Let me explain.

This recent tweet from Williston-based Associated Press reporter Josh Wood caught my eye when it came across my feed:

I follow issues in the oil patch pretty closely, and while we all know that traffic fatalities are up in the oil patch, a 350 percent increase is a figure that raised a red flag with me. It just didn’t pass the smell test. So I checked out the article Wood linked to, and found the AP’s methodology for arriving at that number wanting.

They put the traffic fatality figure in the context of population growth, which is ridiculous for reasons I’ll explain in a moment:

Crashes often increase when the volume of traffic goes up, whether because of an improving economy, a new shopping mall or more people moving into the area. Still, the number of traffic fatalities in some regions has soared far faster than the population or the number of miles driven.

In North Dakota drilling counties, the population has soared 43 percent over the last decade, while traffic fatalities increased 350 percent. Roads in those counties were nearly twice as deadly per mile driven than the rest of the state. In one Texas drilling district, drivers were 2.5 times more likely to die in a fatal crash per mile driven compared with the statewide average. …

The average rate of deaths per 100,000 people — a key mortality measurement that accounts for population growth — in North Dakota drilling areas climbed 148 percent on average from 2009 to 2013, compared with the average of the previous five years, the AP found. In the rest of the state, deaths per 100,000 people fell 1 percent over the same period.

What’s funny is that the AP reporters – Kevin Begos and Jonathan Fahey – acknowledge that fatalities increase as traffic increases, but then they make zero effort in the article to provide the context of increased traffic on western North Dakota roads over the last decade. Instead they used population growth, which is so astoundingly dumb that you have to wonder whether or not Fahey or Begos are even qualified to write about this stuff.

Here’s why using population is dumb. First, as no less an authority than US Census Bureau Director John Thompson said on a recent visit to the state, population counts in western North Dakota aren’t very accurate thanks to rapid growth. What’s more, population doesn’t tell the full story when it comes to traffic on the roads. For instance, in western North Dakota a lot of the miles being put on the roads are from truck drivers who don’t live in western North Dakota.

If we want an accurate picture of traffic fatalities in North Dakota in the context of increases in traffic, we should use vehicle miles traveled, which is exactly what it sounds like. A measure of all the miles driven on all the roads put together by the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

Getting the latest numbers for vehicle miles traveled and traffic fatalities was pretty easy. The NDDOT puts out an excellent and very detailed crash report every year. The latest covering through 2012 is available on their website.

Getting the same numbers for a decade ago proved more difficult. I approached Deniver Tolliver at North Dakota State University’s Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, and he wasn’t sure where to get the data. “I am not aware of any source for this information,” he told me via email.

The folks at NDDOT weren’t even sure they could find the information, but thankfully spokeswoman Jamie Olson was kind enough to dig the reports out of the archives. Though, the fact that it was so hard to locate this information is surprising. Am I really the only one who has requested fatality and traffic numbers from a decade ago to compare to today?

Did the Associated Press not even try to get this information before writing their national and very provocative report?

Apparently not.

Anyway, I got all the data (see below) and I did the math (see my spreadsheet here).

fatalityratesWhat I found shocked me. The raw numbers are to the right.

I wrote about it at

Data provided by the North Dakota Department of Transportation from 2003 to 2012, the latest year for which data is available, show the number of traffic fatalities in North Dakota increased from 105 to 170 — more than 61 percent.

But the number of miles traveled on North Dakota roads also increased, going from more than 7.29 billion in 2003 to 11.881 billion in 2012, a 62 percent increase.

So the rate of fatalities per miles traveled on North Dakota roads remained relatively unchanged over the decade, going from 1.44 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled to 1.43 fatalities.

Even if the data is segregated into oil-producing counties and non-oil counties, the fatality rate remains stable.

Oil patch counties saw a 197 percent increase in traffic fatalities from 2003 to 2012, but also a 192 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled. The fatality rate for those counties increased slightly during the past the decade, from 1.46 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled to 1.49.

Outside of the oil patch, mileage was up 12 percent and fatalities were up 8 percent — an overall decrease in the fatality rate from 1.43 per 100 million miles traveled to 1.37.

Overall, the traffic fatality rate has decreased in North Dakota from 2003 to 2012. In the oil patch specifically, the rate is up slightly by just 3/100’s of a fatality per 100 million miles traveled.

I did not expect that. I fully expected to rebut the Associated Press’ silly metrics by a more accurate fatalities per VMT which would show a more moderate increase in fatalities in western North Dakota. I was expecting to write that the fatality rate in the oil patch had increased 15 percent or 20 percent, but not the 350 percent the AP was claiming.

As it turned out the data indicates that the fatality rate hasn’t really increased at all. Statistically speaking, you’re about as likely to die in a traffic accident in North Dakota’s oil patch as you were a decade ago.

That’s still not good. Statewide the roads are getting slightly safer. In the oil patch, the roads have become slightly more dangerous. But the changes are slight, in the context of traffic growth, and certainly not the picture we get from the media which at times makes it sound like the ditches in western North Dakota are running red with the blood of traffic victims.

You have to wonder why nobody else in the media has done this research which, aside from getting the data, wasn’t that hard to do. Maybe because the facts don’t fit the narrative?