Back in 1960, Paul Anka ruled the pop charts with his saccharine “Puppy Love,” although Chubby Checker gave fair warning of what was to come with “The Twist.” That year, a TCU sociologist named Austin Porterfield published a short paper noting the correlation between traffic deaths and the homicide rate in selected American locales.
The correlation was strong at both the top and bottom of the scale. The states of New England had low rates of both kinds of violent death. Other states had high rates of both. The cluster at the top included six Southern states and (you guessed it) New Mexico. As documented in the last column, Southern states and New Mexico still have some of the nation’s highest rates for both traffic deaths and homicide.
After 63 years, I think it’s fair to assume it’s not coincidence.
In 1983, a University of Michigan scientist named Michael Sivak updated Porterfield’s work, employing a more sophisticated statistical analysis. He considered 16 possible explanations for high rates of traffic deaths in specific locales and found two significant predictors. One was the proportion of young drivers on the road. The other was the homicide rate.
In 2009, Sivak returned to the subject with new data, finding that 71% of the state-to-state variance in traffic fatality rates could be explained by seven factors, of which the most important was the homicide rate.
But why does homicide correlate with traffic fatalities? Porterfield speculated that some regions “have a higher ratio of persons who do not value life,” which just rephrases the question in a judgmental way. Sivak suggested that “society’s level of violence and aggression affects the extent of aggressive driving,” which sounds plausible but doesn’t explain why the level varies so predictably between regions.
To find an explanation for the variance, we need to look at characteristics of the regions themselves. One valuable guide is David Hackett Fischer’s classic book, “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America,” which traces the historical roots of four regional cultures.
In colonial Virginia, Fischer writes, violence was routinely employed as an instrument of social control. “Virginia’s system of customary violence was hierarchical in its nature. It was used by superiors against inferiors. … Violence was thought to be the legitimate instrument of masters against servants, husbands against wives, parents against children, and gentlemen against ordinary folk.” You don’t need to ask where slavery, or Black and Native people, fit into that hierarchy.
Fischer describes an organized set of principles that fulfilled the basic functions of a legal system. Indeed, as a system of behavior control it almost certainly exerted far greater influence on the day-to-day lives of its subjects than the formal system of written laws and courts.
Western historian Robert Utley wrote about “the code of the West.” Sociologist Elijah Anderson published a book called “Code of the Streets.” The Wild West and inner-city Philadelphia might seem as different as any two societies can be, but Utley and Anderson depict each as governed by an unwritten code — a coherent system of public order, enforced by customary violence, as hierarchical as colonial Virginia.
Such codes impose order. They authorize violence as a means for organizing society into a strict vertical arrangement. To maintain one’s position in the hierarchy, a person has to be prepared at all times to defend it.
Colin Woodard, the author of “American Nations,” another celebrated book about regional folkways, recently published an eye-opening article in Politico about the geographical distribution of gun violence. He quotes the dictum that “culture drives politics, law and policy. It is amazingly durable.”
One such regional culture is the Southern “culture of honor,” a fancier name for the same kind of unwritten code. (Honor, in this usage, basically means reputation.) In such a culture, Woodard writes, a person loses social standing “if an insult, slight, or wrong ignored.” The culture of honor accepts violence as the appropriate response to provocation.
How different is it in New Mexico?
To tie the two strands of this argument together, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that males aged 20-29 die on the roads at twice the rate of women of the same age. That’s the same gender skew seen with homicide victims (where the male-to-female ratio is closer to 4-1). You can’t drive on New Mexico’s streets, or hear the racers at night, without being aware that many men use their vehicles to assert their social standing. Our roads are an arena for competing status claims.
Disrespect, whether it comes from being cut off in traffic or being asked to leave a party, demands retaliation, for young men who conceive of every social interaction as either a challenge to, or affirmation of, their social status.
Joel Jacobsen is an author who in 2015 retired from a 29-year legal career. If there are topics you would like to see covered in future columns, please write him at firstname.lastname@example.org”>href=”http://legal.column.tip”>email@example.com.