Published January 13, 2015
Could voting for president be hazardous to your health?
An analysis of Election Day traffic deaths dating back to Jimmy Carter's 1976 win suggests yes, but the authors say that's no reason not to go to the polls.
The study found that on average, 24 more people died in car crashes during voting hours on presidential election days than on other October and November Tuesdays. That amounts to an 18 percent increased risk of death. And compared with non-election days, an additional 800 people suffered disabling injuries.
The results were pretty consistent on all eight presidential Election Days that were analyzed, up to George W. Bush's victory over John Kerry in 2004.
"This is one of the most off-the-wall things I've ever read, but the science is good," said Roy Lucke, senior scientist at Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety. He was not involved in the study, which appears in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association.
Rushing to get to polling places before or after work, driving on unfamiliar routes, and being distracted by thinking about the candidates were among possible reasons cited by the study's Canadian researchers.
So why would a couple of Canucks want to examine this troubling aspect of Yankee voting habits?
Apparently not out of any across-the-border sense of smugness.
Co-author Dr. Donald Redelmeier, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, said Canada would probably have similar results. Even though it's less populous, Canada typically has a higher voter turnout than America, he said.
Redelmeier said he and co-researcher Robert Tibshirani, now at Stanford University, were partly motivated out of concern about public health implications of traffic accidents. They claim about 1 million deaths worldwide each year, including about 41,059 last year in the United States, which has one of the highest traffic death rates among industrialized countries.
Other analyses have found traffic deaths go up when more people are on the road, as during summer months, or during festive times when alcohol use increases, including Super Bowl Sunday and winter holidays, said Ellen Martin, a spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, called the study "a clever example of something that is commonly known in highway safety."
She noted that schools often have Election Day off and stores sometimes have special sales, which both can contribute to extra traffic.
The study is based on an analysis of the highway traffic safety agency's fatal crash data.
The researchers looked at traffic-related deaths during polling hours on presidential Election Days and the two Tuesdays before and afterward over 30 years.
There were 3,417 total deaths, including 1,265 on election days. The Election Day average was 158, versus 134 on the other Tuesdays. The crashes involved drivers, passengers and pedestrians.
Redelmeier said the data don't indicate where drivers were going when crashes occurred, but that the increase in number during polling hours suggests they were voting-related.
He said voters can easily avoid the risks by not speeding, wearing seat belts and avoiding alcohol use before driving to the polls and on the way home. Better traffic enforcement and setting up more polling places that voters can walk to are other solutions he suggested.
"We're not advocating a fatalistic attitude, nor are we saying people should refrain from voting," Redelmeier said. "We are recommending more safety advocacy."
Lucke seconded that.
"Vote, but be careful," he said.