O.C. road deaths are down, but not as much as elsewhere

Fatal car crashes in California have plunged a dramatic 29 percent since 1994, even as millions more people took to the road, federal data show.

Los Angeles managed to log a 39 percent drop. San Diego, a 29 percent drop. Riverside, a 23 percent drop.

But Orange County? Orange County only managed a 3 percent drop.

Why didn’t O.C. improve as much as everyone else? Officials did a fair bit of puzzling over this when we first ran the numbers by them.

“From a state and national perspective, I can’t find anything to pinpoint such a discrepancy,” said Chris Cochran, spokesman for the California Office of Traffic Safety. “This is a case where the devil might be in the details…. anything from socio-economic, age, traffic patterns, number and location of bars and liquor stores, and other micro-data that could combine to have an effect. There is no obvious smoking cannon, so you will have to go looking for the smoking pistols.”

As it turns out, you can thank your doctor more than your traffic engineer. But first, consider some of the factors that differentiate Orange County’s roadways from others in the region:

• O.C. is a great deal more compact than its neighbors, making it easier to get to a hospital when something bad happens.

• Its infrastructure is comparatively newer. Despite a rabid no-tax caricature, voters passed Measure M, a half-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects, back in 1990, and renewed it in 2006.

• While similar transportation taxes have paid for massive public transit projects in neighboring L.A. and San Diego – notably, subway and light rail systems – O.C. has sunk the bulk of its money into old-fashioned road and highway projects.

Some quip that the results are easy to see once one hits Norwalk going north on Interstate 5, or Camp Pendleton heading south, and inevitably slams on the brakes.


A finer dicing of numbers shows that Orange County had less room for improvement to begin with.

In 1996 O.C. had the least-deadly roadways in Southern California, logging one death every 113 million miles driven.

Deaths were nearly three times more frequent in Riverside, with one fatality every 43.8 million miles driven. Los Angeles logged one fatality every 86.8 million miles driven; San Diego had one death every 89.5 million miles driven; and in California overall, deaths were twice as common as in O.C., with one fatality every 69.5 million miles driven.

While the entire state has greatly improved over the years, Orange County still remains the safest. In 2013, the county had just one death every 148.8 million miles driven.

Riverside had one death every 88.7 million miles driven. In L.A., there was one death every 134 million miles driven. San Diego nearly caught up to O.C., with one death every 143.5 million miles driven. In California overall, the average was one death for every 109.7 million miles driven.

So what’s behind the improvement? It’s tempting to chalk it up to advances in road design and the like. But that’s probably the least of it, experts said.

Marlon G. Boarnet, director of graduate programs in urban planning and development at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, pointed toward research done at Rutgers University, concluding that declines in traffic fatalities went hand-in-hand not with the vagaries of road construction, but with improvements in emergency medical care.

“One possibility might be that Orange County had a well-developed network of hospitals and emergency room care as of 1994, and so may have had less room for improvement,” Boarnet said.

In fact, all counties had launched trauma-care systems by the early 1990s, but scholars have found it takes a decade for the systems to become efficient.

And some efforts in SoCal had rougher going than others: Hospitals in Los Angeles pulled out of the trauma-care system for a time because reimbursements were too low. County voters approved a special tax to help fund trauma care in 2002, but parts of L.A. are still underserved, according to a state audit in 2014.


Today, Orange County has the most hospitals per capita of any of its neighbors, as well as a more compact land mass, giving it a treatment advantage when ambulances must rush injured to the emergency room.

In 2002, Robert B. Noland, a professor and director of many programs at Rutgers’ E.J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, crunched 14 years of traffic fatality data from all 50 states. He concluded that “results strongly refute the hypothesis that infrastructure improvements have been effective at reducing total fatalities and injuries. While controlling for other effects it is found that demographic changes in age cohorts, increased seat-belt use, reduced alcohol consumption and increases in medical technology have accounted for a large share of overall reductions in fatalities.”

Civil engineering advances might actually backfire, he found. Wider, straighter roads with bigger shoulders are assumed to be safer, but building them may actually lead to “statistically significant, though small, increases in total fatalities and injuries.”

Why? Human behavior. If a two-lane road is expanded to four lanes, that might reduce the risk of head-on collisions – but it could also result in drivers traveling at higher speeds.

So one of the most significant factors in the drop in traffic fatalities – dubbed the “disease of affluence” by scholars because the rise in automobile use is tied to rising income – is advances in medical care and technology over the past several decades, Noland found. That includes improvements in emergency medical response systems, advanced trauma care procedures, and specific surgical intervention techniques, especially for things like traumatic brain injury.

Noland also noted another, less obvious factor: the economy. When the recession hit in 2007, it temporarily cut down the number of people on the road.

Contact the writer: tsforza@ocregister.com

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