The Most (and Least) Dangerous Cities and Counties for North Carolina
Drivers, Motorcyclists, and Pedestrians

When the North Carolina Department of Transportation released its annual crash facts book, we were eager to find out if our concerns about road safety during the pandemic would bear fruit. It did not take long to find out the unfortunate truth: 2020 was an extremely deadly year on North Carolina’s roads.

It would be easy to describe 2020 as “statistically anomalous” based on the circumstances we faced throughout, but that would be dismissive of the real and at times shocking tragedies that played out on our state’s roads.

So, we dove into the data to see what stories it could tell, and hopefully uncover some lessons we could use moving forward. Here’s what we found.

Six Surprising Takeaways From North Carolina’s 2020 Crash Facts

  • While crash and injury totals fell by about 15%, fatalities rose 12.7% across the state. Mecklenburg County deaths rose by more than 32%, but even far less populous Robeson County saw traffic deaths increase by more than 23%. Wake and Guilford Counties increased by more than 15% and 14%, respectively.
  • 5% of counties accounted for 23.9% of road fatalities. That’s an average of 4.78% of total road fatalities per county. The remaining 95 counties averaged 0.8% of the total. Put another way, you were about six times as likely to be in a fatal crash in Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Cumberland, or Robeson County as anywhere else in the state.
  • Crash severity was higher outside of denser population centers. For example, Mecklenburg was 12th in total crash rate, but 97th in fatal crash rate and 90th in crash severity.
  • The deadliest county in North Carolina when population is factored in is Robeson County, with the 25th most residents (116,530) but the 5th most fatalities (53). Robeson County has been North Carolina’s most dangerous for drivers for four straight years. The county with the most crashes, injuries, and deaths – Mecklenburg – is 39th. Robeson County is the only county in North Carolina with a higher percentage of the state’s fatalities (3.2%) than its population (1.1%).
  • Of counties with more than 20 fatalities, Pitt County had the largest 2020 increase by percentage, with fatalities rising nearly 115% over 2019.
  • Graham County has the 85th highest total crash cost, but is the county with the highest average cost per crash, per person, and per 100,000 vehicle miles traveled, and is second highest in cost per vehicle.

The Most Dangerous Counties in North Carolina for Drivers

The NCDOT has their own ranking system for most dangerous counties, but we created our own that focuses more on injury victims, as we work with them every day. Here are the rankings from the NCDOT and from us, as captured in the Farrin Danger Index (FDI). You can find out more about the Farrin Danger Index below.

Top 5 Most Dangerous Counties According to NCDOT*

Rank County
1 Robeson
2 Anson
3 Vance
4 Edgecombe
5 Halifax

Top 5 Most Dangerous Counties According to the Farrin Danger Index

Rank County FDI Total
1 Hoke 654
2 Pitt 598
3 Harnett 597
4 Robeson 595
5 Edgecombe 584

Many find it interesting that the most dangerous counties in North Carolina – whether according to the NCDOT or to our own formula – are not the most populous counties.

What Is the FDI and Why Create It?

The FDI heavily weights crashes with injuries and deaths, so it shows which counties are more likely to have those types of crashes. Our full FDI formula is below.

Proximity to more people, you may think, carries with it a proportional increase in danger, and that may be true if you’re thinking solely in terms of car crashes. But not every crash results in injury, and not every injury is fatal. The fact that a densely populated area increases the number of fender-benders does not necessarily mean it offers an increased risk to life and limb.

Furthermore, the likelihood of a crash, regardless of injury, can be reasonably represented by the number of crashes per vehicles miles traveled (VMT). The NCDOT estimates total VMT for each county, and also compiles the total number of reported crashes, injuries, and fatalities. From those (and other numbers) we can begin to understand the risk to life and limb a driver in each county may face.

What’s most important from our point of view is not fender benders, but crashes that result in injury or death. Even some counties in the middle of the pack as far as danger metrics saw enormous increases in fatalities in 2020.

Deadliest Counties by # of Fatalities in 2020

Rank Population County Crashes Injury Crashes Total Injuries Fatalities % Change vs 2019 FDI1 Rank
1 1,115,482 Mecklenburg 30,794 9,412 15,122 125 +32.9% 49
2 1,129,410 Wake 25,546 6,556 10,042 88 +15.7% 63
3 541,299 Guilford 12,859 4,790 7,309 73 +14.0% 42
4 334,728 Cumberland 8,341 2,586 4,014 58 +1.7% 15
5 116,530 Robeson 3,894 1,131 1,802 53 +23.2% 4

It is perfectly logical to expect that there will be more fatalities in places with more people. However, when you analyze the data in the context of population, you begin to see a bigger picture, and how dangerous roads in more rural counties can be.

Top 5 Deadliest Counties as a Percentage of Statewide Fatalities and Population

Fatalities % of state Population % of state FDI1 Rank
North Carolina 1,658 100% 10,487,088 100%
Mecklenburg 125 7.5% 1,115,482 10.6% 49
Wake 88 5.3% 1,129,410 10.7% 63
Guilford 73 4.4% 541,299 5.1% 42
Cumberland 58 3.5% 334,728 3.2% 15
Robeson 53 3.2% 116,530 1.1% 4

The Safest Counties in North Carolina for Drivers

Just because a county is urban or rural does not necessarily classify it as dangerous. Even though rural roads tend to have a higher crash severity rate, they also tend to have fewer roads with fewer miles traveled.

As you can see, the safest counties in terms of traffic crashes, injuries, and fatalities are not the most populous.

Top 5 Safest Counties for Drivers According to the NCDOT

Rank County FDI Rank
1 Hyde 90
2 Avery 94
3 Washington 95
4 Ashe 86
5 Currituck 97

Our Farrin Danger Index, which approaches the data differently, ranks the safest counties differently, though Currituck County makes both lists.

Top 5 Safest Counties in the Farrin Danger Index1

FDI Rank County FDI Total
100 Tyrrell 90
99 Polk 126
98 Swain 133
97 Currituck 135
96 Camden 139

Additional County Statistics of Interest

The state’s impressive data can reveal a number of interesting and significant facts about how dangerous our roads are. By aggregating some of this data and putting it into an easily compared format, you can see a few things that may surprise you.

Shortest Time to Next Crash

This is a quick and simple measurement that uses crash data to illustrate how often crashes are happening in a county. It is crucial to remember that the addition of time as a metric automatically adds weight to counties with higher populations and numbers of vehicle miles traveled.

Top 5 Counties With the Shortest Average Time to Next Crash

Rank County Hours to Next Crash Farrin Danger Index1
1 (tie) Wake 0.2 63
1 (tie) Mecklenburg 0.2 49
3 (tie) Forsyth 0.5 55
3 (tie) Guilford 0.5 42
5 Durham 0.6 62

Shortest Time to Next Injury

Here, the data diverge very little from population. These are, in some order, traditionally the most populated counties in North Carolina.

Top 5 Counties With the Shortest Average Time to Next Injury

Rank County Hours to Next Injury Farrin Danger Index1
1 Mecklenburg 0.5 49
2 Wake 0.7 63
3 Guilford 1.0 42
4 Forsyth 1.8 55
5 Cumberland 2.0 15

Shortest Time to Next Fatality

The grimmest of all statistics, still weighted by time toward counties with high populations, includes four of the state’s most populated counties. The lone outlier, Robeson County, is around 24th, according to the NCDOT data (which dates from 2019).

Top 5 Counties With Shortest Average Time to Next Fatality

Rank County Hours to Next Fatality Farrin Danger Index1
1 Mecklenburg 76.8 49
2 Wake 110.0 63
3 Guilford 128.8 42
4 Cumberland 163.2 15
5 Robeson 176.4 4

Average Cost Per Crash: Injuries Cost More Than Vehicles

Let’s say we remove the time element and instead introduce cost. Now you begin to see that the severity of the crash matters more than the frequency. A fender bender has a relatively low cost in the grand scheme of things. A crash with multiple injuries or a fatality could end up costing millions in the final analysis.

As you can see, the highest cost per crash is spread across counties with varying FDI ranks.

Top 5 Counties With the Highest Average Cost per Crash

 

Rank County Avg $/Crash Farrin Danger Index1 Rank
1 Graham $293,526 9
2 Warren $214,762 38
3 Northampton $202,283 39
4 Perquimans $201,340 78
5 Yancey $190,053 80
All of NC $87,902

Crash Severity Index: Where Are Crashes More Likely to Be Severe?

It’s not always easy to draw a conclusion from the data. Some of the safest overall counties have high crash severity indexes. The likelihood of a crash may be small, but the likelihood of that crash being severe may be quite high.

Top 5 Counties in Crash Severity Index*

Rank County Severity Index Change from last year Farrin Danger Index1
1 Graham 11.74 9
2 Swain 6.60 98
3 Warren 6.52 +5 38
4 Currituck 6.31 97
5 Franklin 6.28 +1 14

*Numbers based on a three-year average of all reported crashes.

Injuries and Fatalities Versus Miles Traveled

Having a higher number of fatalities per vehicle miles traveled is a somewhat alarming statistic. It means that, on average, your county is more deadly than others over the same traveled distance. Bear in mind that counties with comparatively few miles traveled may actually be ranked quite high as the result of just a few fatal crashes. One deadly holiday weekend, for instance, could vault an otherwise quiet county to the top of the list.

Top 5 Counties in Fatalities per 100,000 Vehicle Miles Traveled

Rank County Fatalities /100M VMT Change from last year Farrin Danger Index1
1 Graham 4.43 9
2 Caswell 2.72 +2 19
3 Hoke 2.70 1
4 Northampton 2.54 -2 39
5 Warren 2.33 +24 38
All of NC 1.17

Top 5 Counties in Non-Fatal Injury Crashes per 100,000 Vehicle Miles Traveled

Rank County Non-Fatal Injury Crashes /100M VMT Change from last year Farrin Danger Index1
1 Pitt 109.41 2
2 Hoke 92.02 1
3 Graham 89.43 +2 9
4 New Hanover 81.85 -1 21
5 Guilford 81.61 +2 42
All of NC 65.40

Looking at the data in the tables above, both Hoke and Graham Counties appear on both lists. Drivers beware!

Injuries and Fatalities Versus Population

Population does not necessarily correlate to the possibility of a traffic injury or death. It does, however, offer a different perspective than statistics relating to vehicle miles traveled. Remember that not all miles driven in a county are driven by its residents, for instance, though that is a very difficult anomaly for which to correct. These numbers use the NCDOT’s reference population totals.

Top 5 Counties in Crash Injuries per 1,000 People

Rank County Crash Injuries/ 1,000 People Change from last year Farrin Danger Index1 Rank
1 Mecklenburg 17.38 +1 49
2 Anson 17.22 +2 17
3 Robeson 16.37 +2 4
4 Vance 16.30 -3 10
5 Pitt 16.23 -2 2
All of NC 11.88

Top 5 Counties in Fatal Crashes per 1,000 People

Rank County Fatal Crashes/ 1,000 People Change from last year Farrin Danger Index1 Rank
1 Graham 0.50 9
2 Northampton 0.49 39
3 Robeson 0.38 +1 4
4 Warren 0.37 +5 38
5 Montgomery 0.36 +1 59
All of NC 0.15

The obvious takeaway here is that the density of population may mean more crashes, it doesn’t necessarily mean those crashes will be severe, or the county is more dangerous. Mecklenburg County has a high number of crash injuries per 1,000 people. It’s annually one of the two most populous counties in the state.

Anson County, on the other hand, has the second-highest injury rate behind Mecklenburg but is 75th in population. And as far as crash fatalities per 1,000 population, Mecklenburg ranks all the way down in 93rd!

North Carolina’s Most Dangerous Cities and Towns for Drivers

While an abundance of data points are provided for North Carolina counties, there is not as much data for the state’s population centers.

The state’s ranking criteria paint an interesting picture.

Top 5 Most Dangerous Cities (Population 10,000 or More)*

Rank City Change from last year
1 Charlotte
2 Greensboro
3 Lumberton +2
4 Burlington +5
5 Fayetteville +3

* Based on All Reported Crashes from January 1, 2018 through December 31, 2020

Top 5 Most Dangerous Cities (Population Less Than 10,000)*

Rank City Change from last year
1 Whiteville
2 Wadesboro
3 Walkerton +2
4 Kill Devil Hills -1
5 Surf City -1

* Based on All Reported Crashes from January 1, 2018 through December 31, 2020

North Carolina’s Safest Cities and Towns for Drivers

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some cities and towns are safer for drivers. It’s important to note that the delineation of “10,000 population” is kinder to places under the number – the difference between small towns cannot be more than 10,000, whereas larger population centers may differ by hundreds of thousands.

Top 5 Safest Cities (Population 10,000 or More)*

Rank City Change from last year
1 Davidson
2 Elon
3 Carrboro
4 Summerfield
5 Waxhaw

* Based on All Reported Crashes from January 1, 2018 through December 31, 2020

Top 5 Safest Cities (Population Less Than 10,000)*

Rank City Change from last year
1 Sawmills +79
2 Montreat +2
3 Seven Lakes +21
4 Nakina +27
5 East Laurinburg +48

Of the top five safest cities with more than 10,000 population, two are within commuting distance of Charlotte – the most dangerous in the category. It’s also important to note that, because the numbers of incidents are generally very small when determining the “safest” small town roads, a few incidents can result in a serious statistical shift. The safest small town, Sawmills, rose 79 spots from the previous year.

About the Farrin Danger Index1

The state of North Carolina aggregates its data in its own way. We decided we wanted something specific to our perspective as attorneys who represent those injured on the road.

We gauge danger in terms of injury, both in risk and in severity. Vehicles can be fixed or replaced. Damage to people can last their whole lives – or end them. We wanted to look into the data to create a metric that would reflect the relative danger to someone’s “life and limb.” To do so, we weighed some statistics heavier than others.

While it is by no means perfect – and subject to alteration as we see trends develop – the Farrin Danger Index is our representation of the approximate danger to life and limb of driving in a given county. When ranked, lower numbers are more dangerous, as in a traditional “top 10” list fashion. When displaying the raw index number, higher numbers represent more danger.

Farrin Danger Index Formula

Using the NC Crash Facts Book published by the state, we took the state’s rankings and statistics and aggregated them as follows:

100 – County Estimated VMT ranking +
100 – Crash Rate/Miles Travelled +
100 – Non-Fatal Injury Crash Rate/Miles Traveled x 2 +
100 – Fatal Injury Crash Rate/Miles Traveled x 3 +
% of Alcohol-Related Crashes x 10 =
County FDI

 

1The Farrin Danger Index is not an official measurement, but a simple estimation of the risk to road users in North Carolina counties based on statistics compiled by the state and chosen by us.

Jeremy Maddox

About the Author

Jeremy Maddox is a lead personal injury attorney for the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin in North Carolina. He was listed on the “Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch”a list by Best Lawyers in America in 2021, The National Trial Lawyers’ “Top 100 Trial Lawyers”b list in 2020 and 2021 and “Top 40 Under 40″B list in 2021, and the “Legal Elite”c list by Business North Carolina in 2021. Jeremy is a member of the North Carolina Bar Association, the Mecklenburg County Bar Association, and the 26th Judicial District Bar Association, as well as the North Carolina Advocates for Justice.

aFor more information regarding the standards for inclusion, please visit www.bestlawyers.com.

bFor more information regarding the standards for inclusion, please visit www.thenationaltriallawyers.org.

cFor more information regarding the standards for inclusion, please visit www.businessnc.com.

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