TUESDAY, Sept. 30, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Driving or walking to the polls on Election Day is a longstanding political tradition in the United States, but new research suggests it might be more dangerous than you think.
After crunching traffic fatality numbers, researchers discovered that Americans were about 18 percent more likely to die in accidents during polling hours on presidential election days than on other Tuesdays.
The increased risk is greater than it is on New Year's Eve or Super Bowl Sunday, the Canadian researchers added.
Still, study co-author Dr. Donald A. Redelmeier, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, isn't recommending that people start stressing out.
"We are not saying that people shouldn't vote," he said. "Au contraire. None of these deaths are inevitable; all could be prevented by a small change in driver behavior. A fatalistic attitude is not warranted."
Redelmeier said his work with trauma patients drew his attention to the problem of automobile fatalities and the lack of attention they get in the world at large. "If 100 people were to die in a train derailment, that would make front-page news. But the exact same number die on American roadways every day."
The study authors analyzed data about fatal accidents, focusing on presidential election days from 1976 to 2004. They looked specifically at accidents during polling hours -- 8 a.m. to 7:59 p.m. -- and then looked at the fatality numbers for the Tuesdays immediately before and after the elections.
The findings were published in a letter in the Oct. 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
A total of 3,417 people were killed in car accidents -- including pedestrians -- on the eight election days and 16 comparison Tuesdays.
The risk of death on election days was 18 percent higher than the other days, or 158 deaths per day versus 134 deaths per day. The researchers estimated that resulted in an extra 189 deaths over the period studied.
Higher speeds could account for the extra deaths, or "distractions, changes in routines, heightened emotion, or decreased roadside policing," Redelmeier said.
The ultimate winner of the presidential election -- Democrat or Republican -- didn't affect the fatality rates.
Eric Rodgman, a senior database analyst at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, said the new research is interesting, but doesn't explain whether the fatality rates go up on election days simply because people are driving and walking more. "Do drivers, on average, increase the amount of driving they do on a presidential election day? If so, by how much? That answer might help explain why the jump is so high."
What to do? Redelmeier said people who try to get out the vote should encourage safe driving. "Some good additional advice would include reducing speed, alcohol use and other distractions," he said.
Rodgman had similar advice: "Plan your trip to the poll on Election Day -- leave yourself plenty of time, use your seat belt while driving to and from, watch out for others coming or going to the polls, be patient and alert."
Learn more about driving safety from The Partnership for Safe Driving.