When most people think NFL safety, they think concussions. But this pro sport can actually affect your well-being off the field. Because while it's safer to drive in Denver when the Broncos are in town, if you’re a local Cowboys or Seahawks fan, you might be safer steering clear of the stadium.
Why? John Nelson, co-creator of the “Game-Day Traffic Fatalities” infographic you see here, has no clue. His graphic breaks down traffic fatalities over the last decade of NFL games. He looked only at areas within one hour of the stadium, and he only counted game days. And after digging through all of this information, he discovered something incredibly interesting: In most cities, a football game doesn’t seem to affect traffic safety. But in some cities, pro football could make the roads significantly more dangerous (Dallas and Seattle), and in some cities, it could make the roads significantly less dangerous (Denver, New England, and Tampa Bay).
“Overall, I'm nervous,” Nelson admits to me. “This is the sort of analysis you especially don't want to get wrong.”
That said, assuming his methodology was as flawless as it appears to be, the findings are incredible. Looking at the image, you can see the percentage of traffic fatalities on game days, when local team was home versus away. So far, so good? Okay. Realize that most of what you’re looking at isn’t important—it’s not statistically significant, which probably means NFL activity didn't generally affect street safety in most cities. Now look for which numbers have boxes around them. Those are statistically significant; they’re the outliers that might teach us something about what some cities are doing right and others are doing wrong.
To put that potential wrong into perspective, in Dallas, there were 6,052 traffic fatalities from 2001 through 2011. 65 traffic fatalities happened during game days. 47 happened on days when the team was playing in town, and 18 happened when the team was playing out of town. Put differently, about 2.5x more traffic fatalities occurred in Dallas when the Cowboys were in town.
Yet Nelson isn't focusing on the negative, because he'd expected drinking fans and more traffic to drive a stronger trend of fatalities. “Honestly, I was surprised more by the venues that appear to be safer when the team is playing in town," Nelson tells me. "But after more thought I can offer hunches as to why that is: Slower, more carefully choreographed, traffic. Tens of thousands of cars not driving when the game is on. And tailgating cultures that extend that period of non-driving.”
It’s entirely possible, Nelson reasons, that tailgating culture could actually make roads safer. But ultimately, we just don’t know. Now that this information is out there and laid out with relative clarity, hopefully cities like Dallas will do some introspection, while cities like Denver can become models for everyone else.