Wayne Atkins, who died in September 2017, and his fiancee, Katie Beth Worthy

Just before 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 17, Wayne Atkins’ truck veered off a two-lane road on the outskirts of Amory, hitting a utility pole head-on. He died on impact, three weeks shy of his 30th birthday.

Atkins was a country boy with a big personality. He met his fiancee, Katie Beth Worthy, at the gym in 2015, walking up to her and her sister with a grin and two exercise mats. But Worthy had a boyfriend back then. So Atkins struck up a friendship with her soon-to-be ex, too, and bided his time. Then one day on the treadmill, Atkins pretended to trip. Regaining his balance, he flashed a smile and said “I think I’m falling for you.”

“He had a killer smile and, oh my God, this charming personality. He could charm the socks off of anyone. I was attracted to him immediately,” Worthy said.

The night he died, Atkins, a staff sergeant with the Army National Guard, met up with a big group of friends, one last blow out before heading to a leadership program in Arkansas. Leaving that party, the decisions he made read like a list of driver’s ed “don’ts.” After drinking for hours, he got behind the wheel, speeding home along narrow back country roads. He was also texting, according to Worthy who got his phone after the accident. And he didn’t wear a seat belt.

Atkins knew each of these actions had risks, Worthy said, but he often took them anyway.

“Wayne was a rebel all the time,” Worthy said. “That’s just who he was.”

According to the data, Atkins is far from the only rebel of that kind in the state. In fact, Mississippians are more likely to take the above risks than people in almost every other state. Mississippi is also a rural state, and rural roads, like the one Atkins drove that night, are four times as deadly as city streets. And the officers who police these roads often don’t have the personnel to effectively enforce the laws.

As a result, Mississippi has long been the deadliest place in the country to drive a car.

Last year, 685 people died in car crashes here, giving the state a traffic fatality rate of 22.9 deaths for every 100,000 residents—the highest in the country, according to data from the Itasca, Ill.-based National Safety Council. It was the fourth straight year Mississippi led the nation in traffic fatalities, something the state has done all but three years since 1999, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those same numbers show that between 1999 and 2016, Mississippi’s average fatality rate was 28.1—20 percent higher than the next deadliest state, Wyoming, which averaged 23.8 deaths for every 100,000 residents. The safest, Massachusetts, had an average fatality rate of 6.93.

Between 1999 and 2016, the CDC reported that 14,786 people died in car crashes in Mississippi. If our state’s fatality rate had tracked with the national average, more than half of these people—7,708 to be precise—would not have died. If Mississippi had the same fatality rate as Massachusetts, 11,139 people would not have died.

“The loss of life in any state is devastating because regardless of what state you’re in, New York or California or Mississippi, that’s a life cut short and taken away from their loved ones,” said Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, whose 2017 bill finally required seat belts for backseat passengers. “But in Mississippi, being the small state that we are, it becomes perhaps more devastating because we know more about those who’ve passed. We’re just three million people. Fifteen thousand is a large number here.”

Deadly risk factors

The reasons that Mississippi remains such a dangerous place to drive are complex.

Ken Kolosh, a statistics manager at the National Safety Council, a nonprofit advocacy group, said Mississippi’s problems fall into two buckets.

“One bucket is the things you can control, and that’s the laws you pass and how well you enforce them,” Kolosh said. “And the other bucket is what Mississippi is as a state. It’s generally a more rural state, and (nationally) you have the vast majority of fatalities on rural roads.”

Hospitals in rural areas tend to be smaller and farther from crash sites. And rural roads usually have higher speed limits than city streets, which makes crashes more severe. City speed limits rarely go over 45 miles per hour. But outside of the city, they can go as high as 70 miles per hour in Mississippi.

“Rural roads are just more unforgiving,” said Ruth Shults, a senior epidemiologist at the CDC’s division of unintentional injury.

Mississippi is a very rural state—the fourth-most rural state in the country, according to U.S. Census data from 2010, with more than half of the state’s residents living in rural areas. And the state’s fatality rates reflect the toll that this takes on its residents. Nationally, 50 percent of traffic fatalities occur on rural roads. In Mississippi, that number is 98 percent, according to 2016 data from the CDC.

“So that’s your challenge. And because of that, Mississippi has to really double down and have the best laws and the best enforcement,” Kolosh said.

So far, Mississippi has yet to double down. Shults describes the strength of Mississippi traffic laws as “kind of in the middle” among the states.

For years, Mississippi laws didn’t even meet that threshold. But in the last decade or so, the state has enacted primary enforcement seat belt laws for backseat passengers and a ban on texting while driving. Primary enforcement means an officer can pull someone over for a seat belt violation, alone. The state also lowered blood alcohol level requirements to 0.08 percent, the standard in all 50 states.

Still, state laws are a patchwork, leaving large gaps that younger Mississippians, in particular, keep slipping through. For example, the state doesn’t require rear facing car seats for children under age two or booster seats for children older than seven. Teen driving laws are also lax. Advocates for Highway Safety recommends raising the age for learners’ permits from 15 to 16, restricting nighttime driving and passengers until a driver turns 18, and mandating a certain number of supervised driving hours. Current Mississippi law requires none of these things.

And young Mississippians continue to bear the brunt of this. In 2015, 78 of the 769 people who died in car crashes were teenagers between 15 and 19 years old.

“It’s the number one reason we’re losing our Mississippi teens,” said Tawni Basden, the project manager at Safe Kids Mississippi, a nonprofit advocacy group in Jackson.

‘The numbers are staggering’

The impact of this loss of life on Mississippi’s families is hard to quantify. Wives and husbands become single parents in an afternoon. Parents grieve children the rest of their lives. And children grow up asking relatives for stories of parents they barely knew.

But the economic costs are easier to measure. Traffic fatalities cost the state $861 million every year, according to the CDC. Of that, just $7 million are medical costs. The rest, $854 million, is lost income. Nationally, the country loses $44 billion each year to traffic deaths. Mississippi, a state with less than one percent of the U.S. population, accounts for two percent of its financial losses.

“The numbers are staggering,” said Jake McGraw of ReThink Mississippi, a program of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation that analyzes data and publishes commentary on challenges facing the state. “Just to put it in economic terms and not to disregard human loss, but when you’re talking about the brain drain … there’s no method of growing your economy if your population is shrinking and particularly if the people you’re losing are your youngest and most productive.”

The brain drain McGraw mentioned is an oft-cited statistic that since 2010 Mississippi lost more of its Millennial population than any other state.

And like the brain drain, traffic fatalities hit young Mississippians the hardest. Nearly 20 percent of traffic deaths in 2016 were people between 25 and 34, according to the Department of Health. Teenagers and young adults 15 to 24 accounted for 19 percent. The CDC estimates that these two groups make up nearly half of Mississippi’s lost income from traffic fatalities, or $434 million.

Katie Beth Worthy and her daughter with Atkins, Lula Beth

When Wayne Atkins died, Katie Beth Worthy was six months pregnant. On Dec. 7,  she gave birth to a girl, Lula Beth, a name they’d picked together that summer. Worthy said Lula has her father’s light hair and eyes and his distinctive upturned nose.

“She looks just like him,” Worthy said. “Everybody says it.”

But for Worthy and their daughter, losing Atkins meant losing not just his physical and emotional support, but the income from his career with the National Guard. A GoFundMe account, set up shortly after his death to help offset the losses, tapped out at $3,130 of its $10,000 goal. The most recent donation, for $20, was made eight months ago.

“It’s the scariest thing in the world, to have a baby with someone and then realize you’re not going to have any help, that you’re entirely on your own,” Worthy said. “It changed everything.”

Even Mississippians who can’t yet drive are affected. More Mississippi children die in car crashes each year, per capita, than in any other state in the country. Between 2010 and 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, Mississippi led the nation in per capita deaths of people under age 20, according to a 2017 report in the Journal of Pediatrics. In Mississippi, the mortality rate in motor vehicle crashes is 3.23 children for every 100,000 residents. In Massachusetts, the motor vehicle mortality rate is just 0.25 children per 100,000.

And it’s likely to get worse. Between 2015 and 2018, Mississippi’s overall traffic fatalities are projected to rise by 37, from 677 to 714, according to the 2018 Mississippi Highway Safety Plan, which the Office of Highway Safety submits annually to the NHTSA. During that same time period, deaths of young Mississippians under 21 are expected to increase by 35, from 105 to 140.

“When public safety is given a higher priority in the Legislature, when it’s known that there’s zero tolerance for distracted driving, that there’s an expensive penalty for not wearing a seat belt, when we get better teen driving laws, that’s when you’re going to see a difference,” Basden said. “Other states have rural roads. What we lack right now is making public safety a priority.”

‘How dare you take away my phone?’

But passing laws is one thing; getting Mississippians to abide by them is another.

In 2006, Mississippi passed a primary enforcement seat belt law for people in the front seat. More than a decade later, only 78 percent of Mississippi drivers and passengers are buckled up at any given time—the fourth-lowest rate in the country and the lowest rate of any state with a primary enforcement requirement—according to a 2016 survey from the CDC’s Journal of Safety Research. The national average is 90 percent.

Rates of texting while driving are worse. Nearly half of Mississippi drivers use handheld devices behind the wheel—the highest rate in the country, according to a 2017 survey of driving habits conducted by Everdrive, a ride-safety app. This data mirrors the results from a statewide survey of drivers the Center for Mississippi Health Policy conducted, which found that last year 46 percent of Mississippi drivers reported sending text messages behind the wheel.

“So many people here don’t want to give up their phones,” said Sen. Billy Hudson, R-Hattiesburg, who sponsored legislation that would have strengthened Mississippi’s texting laws. “There are people in the Senate, educated people, who voted against our texting bill. There’s just this attitude, it’s ‘How dare you take away my phone?’ Well, I’ve got the right to do anything as long as it doesn’t harm anybody. Once it does, then my rights end.”

Hudson added: “I just think the tougher the law, the less people get killed.”

On paper, Mississippi appears to have that tougher drunk-driving law. In addition, 35 of the state’s 82 counties are dry or partially dry, and only 13.5 percent of Mississippi adults self-report excessive drinking, the fourth-lowest rate in the country.

Yet Mississippi has the nation’s fourth-highest rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths.

Mississippi is also one of a handful of states without an open-container law—and the only state that allows its drivers to drink from it while driving. And some say this amounts to a tacit admission on Mississippi’s part, that drinking and driving is acceptable.

“It doesn’t seem like we really believe in that drunk-driving limit if we’re just going to let people regulate themselves once they get in the car,” McGraw said.

“People in general are just bad at assessing risk. And I think that good policy is supposed to mitigate that, and if we’re not (enforcing laws), we’re letting people make their own determination about the likelihood of some accident or other worst case scenario happening to them,” McGraw said. “So it creates this vicious cycle in which we sort of lure people into making decisions that increase the risk of somebody getting hurt or dying.”

Fewer and fewer tickets

So if Mississippi’s laws are “kind of in the middle,” then why is the state’s fatality rate still off the charts? The answer, according to traffic safety experts, is that the laws we have aren’t working, either because they aren’t being enforced or because they can’t be.

Shults, of the CDC, pointed to Mississippi’s low seat belt usage rate.

“Mississippi was kind of late in the game to pass a primary (seatbelt) law, and they still have not seen the small bump in seat belt use that most states have when they pass these laws,” Shults said.

Mississippi actually did see seat belt usage increase immediately after the law passed. Between 2005, the year before the mandatory seat belt law took effect, to 2012, seat belt usage rose from 61 percent to 83 percent, federal survey data show. But since then it’s declined. In 2016, just 78 percent of Mississippians report buckling up, the sixth lowest rate in the country and the lowest rate of any state with a primary enforcement law.

Johnny Poulos, director of public affairs at the Mississippi Highway Patrol, said the state has kept up education campaigns, targeting high schools and social media in particular.

But when it comes to enforcement, officers are writing fewer tickets than they were just a few years earlier, including for unbuckled children. Between 2012 and 2016 the number of statewide citations for unrestrained kids plummeted 53 percent, from 8,852 tickets to 4,152 tickets.

Officers are also writing fewer tickets for DUIs. Between 2010 and 2015, the latest year for which data was available, statewide citations for DUIs dropped 13 percent.

In Mississippi’s 2017 Highway Safety Plan, the state notes that “when DUI arrests decrease, there are usually corresponding increases in traffic fatalities.” In 2014, Mississippi recorded its lowest traffic fatality rate, 22.5 deaths for every 100,000 residents. That year, arrests hit a three-year high at just over 45,000. The next year, as arrests fell, the fatality rate surged 3.2 points, to 25.7 deaths.

Poulos said citations drop when manpower drops. Mississippi has only graduated three classes of troopers in the last decade: 2018, 2015 and 2011, adding approximately 150 new troopers to the ranks in that time. The 2018 class should bring the total number of troopers in the state to 520. Mississippi is authorized to have up to 650 troopers.

“When you start looking at citation numbers manpower issues are going to play a big role in it. If you’ve got 500 troopers compared to 700, the numbers are not even close,” Poulos said. “It’s about visibility, too. Blue lights are a deterrent. If you (as a driver) don’t think there are going to be repercussions, you’re not going to change your behavior.”

An ‘awful’ texting law

Not having the manpower to enforce laws is one thing. But one of Mississippi’s newest traffic safety laws — its ban on handheld devices — is simply impossible to enforce.

“It’s wrong. It’s awful. It’s not enforceable,” Basden said.

The problem, according to Commissioner of Public Safety Marshall Fisher, is how the law was written. While some states banned all handheld usage, Mississippi’s ban is limited to texting and browsing the web. A police officer, looking into a car, may see that the driver is on his phone. But it’s difficult to prove that he was doing something unlawful with it.

“Once you pull them over, they can say, ‘Oh no sir, you didn’t see me sending a text. You observed me dialing a phone number,’ which is not against the law. And when you go to prove they weren’t, it’s your word against theirs,” Fisher said.

Even if an officer defies the odds and issues a ticket that sticks, it’s a civil offense, not a criminal one. It doesn’t go on the driver’s record. As a result, the only real deterrent is the inconvenience of paying a ticket and the cost, $100, about average for states.

“We’re going to have to consider changing (the citation) from the civil to the criminal side,” Fisher said. “I think it would make a difference.”

In 2016, Mississippi issued just five texting while driving citations for every 100,000 residents, one of the lowest rates in the country, according to the NHTSA. In contrast, New York law enforcement issued nearly 12,000 tickets per 100,000 drivers. That year, the traffic fatality rate in New York was 5.8. In Mississippi it was 23.1.

“There’s absolutely a correlation between how all of these laws are enforced and the fatality rates of each state,” Kolosh said.

Poulos agrees, but he also said focusing solely on enforcement is too simplistic.

“You’ve gotta go a little deeper than the citations. It doesn’t just fall on law enforcement. The public knows what safety is. That’s the reason they slow down, they fasten their seat belts, they eliminate distractions when they see blue lights. When is the motoring public going to take some responsibility for this?”

Wayne Atkins and Katie Beth Worthy

In 2017, lawmakers introduced a total of 41 separate bills addressing highway safety. If passed, they would have increased the fine for texting to $500, strengthened DUI penalties or made roadside rumble strips mandatory.

Only one, Harlie’s Law, made it across the governor’s desk. That bill became the law requiring primary enforcement for backseat seat belts. It was named in honor of Harlie Ann Oswalt, a 15-year-old from Potts Camp, who died in late 2016 when the car she was in ran off the road and she and a friend were thrown from the back seat.

And unfortunately, Poulos said, until laws and enforcement change, these types of personal experiences are often Mississippians’ strongest deterrent to bad habits on the road. Few things, he said, wake someone up like witnessing a mistake firsthand.

“In a lot of cases it takes something happening to someone they know. When that happens, they see it and say, ‘Oh, now I can’t text. Now I’ve got to wear my seat belt.'”

Worthy knows this. Before Atkins died, she said she rarely put on her seat belt, especially if she was just making a quick trip along the rural blacktop road connecting Hatley to Amory.

“It’s a small community. It just didn’t really occur to me,” Worthy said. “But now as soon as I get in the car, I buckle up. I think about Lula.”

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.