Chicago: A Relatively Safe City to Drive In, With a DUI Problem

Chicago did pretty well in a ranking of cities and fatal crashes over the past decade, coming in 20th out of the 25 largest per thousand people. But a high percentage of those involved intoxication: third worst among America’s biggest cities.

 

Via The Atlantic Cities, John Nelson of IDV Solutions takes a look at the geography of fatal drunk driving in America, with a focus on major cities. Chicago comes off poorly by comparison, save for the Fourth City, Houston. It’s ugly.

Henry Grabar writes:

Even in those areas, there are clusters of green on those areas best served by mass transit – Pittsburgh, San Francisco. But urbanity is no guarantee that people will not drive while intoxicated. Just look at Chicago and Houston (with dishonorable mentions for Denver and St. Louis, pictured on the UX Blog).

Of the fatal traffic crashes in the central city, Houston fares worse than Chicago in terms of the percentage involving alcohol; it’s surprising given the density of mass transit downtown, but the geography also appears weighed on the density of interstates.

It’s an interesting way of looking at the problem, but it’s incomplete, or at least difficult to draw conclusions from on a comparative basis. To address criticisms, Nelson ranked cities by population, fatal crashes per thousand, fatal crashes involving alcohol per thousand, and the percentage of fatal crashes that involve alcohol, in another infographic. And Chicago gets mixed results.

Among the 25 largest cities, Chicago’s third in population, and 20th in fatal crashes per thousand residents, at 0.57—better than Washington (0.60) and Los Angeles (0.64), worse than San Francisco (0.44) and New York (0.34). Boston, to my surprise, is 25th. Houston, notorious for its mediocre public transportation, has the sixth-highest rate, 1.07 fatal traffic crashes per thousand.

Then it gets worse for the city. Despite its impressively low ranking in fatal crashes overall, Chicago leaps to 13th in fatal crashes involving alcohol per thousand, at 0.25. Houston’s still way ahead of us (third, at 0.50), but it has more fatal traffic crashes generally. So expressed as a ratio of fatal crashes involving intoxication to all crashes, Chicago finishes very high: third, at 44.1 percent. In other words, almost half of all fatal crashes in the city involve driving under the influence.

What explains it? I’m not sure, but the top five cities are all clustered between the Midwest and Mountain West: Denver, Houston, Chicago, Phoenix, Dallas. The bottom five are eastern: Memphis (though Nelson writes that the “overall rate of deadly crashes relative to population is so high that it makes the rate of intoxication involvement look tiny—even though it is relatively commensurate with the population"), New York, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia. Of eastern cities, only Jacksonville and Charlotte rank high, and they’re physically more like Sunbelt cities. So I can’t help thinking that sprawl has something to do with it; despite a good public transportation system for its size and age, Chicago’s still a very extensive city, which may encourage more risks from drivers.

 

Photograph: Gene Hunt (CC by 2.0)

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