The Cost of Automobile Crashes

Traffic accidents: a bigger problem than congestion by a factor of four.

by James A. Bacon

Virginia transportation policy is driven overwhelmingly by a desire to mitigate transportation congestion and, to a lesser degree, to promote economic development. Rarely does traffic safety enter into the discussion of which transportation improvements we finance.

As evidence that congestion is one of the state’s foremost pressing concerns, elected officials can point to the annual Urban Mobility Report, which documents the cost of congestion in the nation’s metropolitan regions. In 2011, according to the 2013 report, congestion cost the nation $121 billion in lost time and wasted gasoline. But consider this: The economic cost of motor vehicle crashes amounted to $277 billion in 2010, finds a new study by the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration, “Economic and Societal Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes, 2010.” If you include the economic value of lives snuffed out — and why wouldn’t you, considering that the Urban Mobility Report counts the value of time lost sitting in congestion — the cost soars to $871 billion.

Think about that — the economic value of traffic accidents outweighs that of traffic congestion by four times but the overwhelming share of public transportation resources is funneled to relieving congestion. The question Virginians should ask themselves is this: Why are we spending billions of dollars to build new roads, highways and mass transit facilities and spending mere millions on making our transportation systems safer? By any rational measure, we have a twisted sense of priorities.

One can’t help but wonder why that is. The answer, of course, is political. I see two dimensions. First is popular perception. Nearly all of us experience the frustration and aggravation of traffic congestion to some degree. That means everyone can relate to the desire to tame congestion. By contrast, only a fraction of Virginians experience traffic accidents, and those incidents are by their nature episodic rather than chronic. Moreover, we tend to think of congestion as something that can be addressed by building more stuff, while we attribute traffic accidents to human frailty. It is less obvious to people how we can build safer roads that can protect us against, say, drunk drivers, distracted driving or road rage.

The second dimension is that traffic accident victims are not organized as a political force. By contrast, developers, construction contractors, labor unions, architects, engineers and an array of special interests stand to gain financially from expenditures on roads and mass transit justified on the grounds of traffic congestion. Through linkages to business organizations such as the chambers of commerce, these self-interested groups are able to mobilize the broader business community behind their initiatives.

Thus, the real estate/construction industry has donated $10.5 million in 2013-14 to Virginia political candidates, the largest of any group excepting the financial industry. Not a single traffic safety-related group appears in the Virginia Public Access Project’s list of miscellaneous, single-issue contributors. Environmental groups have contributed $4.8 million in 2013-14 but traffic safety ranks way down on their list of priorities compared to global warming, the Chesapeake Bay and uranium mining.

Perhaps another reason that safety warrants so little consideration in the Old Dominion is that the economic loss from traffic accidents in Virginia is lower than in most states. Traffic accidents cost $5.7 billion (in 2010 dollars), for an average cost of $713 per person or 1.6% of personal income. Only four other states (Hawaii, California, Minnesota, Oregon) experienced lower costs as a percentage of income. Be that as it may, the $5.7 billion toll is horrendously high compared to the level of public attention it receives.

As a practical matter, what could Virginia do to make streets and roads safer than they already are? First, take a look at where the traffic accidents occur. The NHTSA study indicates that intersection crashes resulted in 8,682 fatalities, 2.2 million injuries and 10 million damaged vehicles in 2010 — more than half of all crashes, a quarter of all fatalities, 50% of all economic costs and 45% of all societal harm.

I would hypothesize, subject to verification, that a disproportionate number of accidents take place in a relatively small sub-set of roads — typically commercial corridors that combine relatively high speeds (45 miles per hour) with lots of traffic signals, cut-throughs and driveways creating complex traffic patterns where cars collide at relatively high speeds. Many accidents could be remedied by better street design — turning our stroads (street-road hybrids) into Complete Streets that accommodate buses, pedestrians and cyclists intermingling at lower and safer speeds.

The other big killer category is “roadway departure crashes,” in which people run off the road. This accounted for 18,850 fatalities, 795,000 injuries and 2.4 million damaged vehicles, accounting for 26% of all economic costs and 35% of societal harm. Many of these accidents take place on windy, two-lane, undivided roads. Surely it would be possible to reduce the number of these accidents through such measures as road-straightening projects, wider shoulders and better marking in the most accident-prone stretches. As with transportation investment of any kind, planners need to weigh the cost of any given investment with the benefit. If they did, I expect that safety-related transportation improvements would rank far higher than they do now. The key is to develop a project-scoring methodology that properly takes safety into account, along with congestion relief, economic development and and other factors.

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5 responses to “The Cost of Automobile Crashes”

  1. larryg Avatar

    I’m not sure about VDOT but FHWA puts safety at number one for the interstates and the ramps – and as far as I know only concerned about congestion if it is directly causing safety issues (like weaving at interchanges or poorly designed exit ramps, etc).

    but on surface streets (and the interstates) you cannot fix stupid.

    I’d like to see for the interstates – a catalog of crashes with what percent of them were the direct cause of a safety issue.

    when I see more and more people fiddling with their cell phones – not only at speed – but in close-proximity congestion.. I wonder – well what in the H E Double L could you really do in terms of construction and design to fix this?

    people do stupid things. they run red lights but people go ape-crap when you suggest putting cameras up.

    they pass you on the left – in the 3rd lane and cut back in front of 2 lanes of traffic to get to the exit.

    they pull out in front of oncoming traffic … they back up when they miss exists, they tailgate others, they cut right back in front of 18 wheelers leaving them no where to go…

    so my suspects are – that for every 1000 accidents, there MIGHT be one or two that can be traced to a design issue of the road.

    the rest are stupid human error…

    I always wonder this when I see incredibly stupid behaviors on the roads – each one of those folks probably has a job – a job that requires – even at the McDonalds level – some basic form of good judgement. I mean if you have to use good judgement in flipping burgers.. why in the hell can you not use good judgement – when your very life depends on it?

    I have no sympathy for the wise-asses, smart-asses or dumb-asses on the highway. They’ve infested our roads and highways and good riddance to them but blaming the roads is amusing…

  2. chris bonney Avatar
    chris bonney

    As Larry points out, FHWA has quite extensive design standards that extend to just about any roadway that’s built with so much as a penny of federal money. I’ve done a lot of research for USDOT, FHWA and others involved in this issue and I can tell you that safety is an obsession with them. The rest, as you point out, are the result of driver error, impaired driving, driving while under the influence or without benefit of adequate rest, distraction, inappropriate driving for the conditions or, when all else fails to explain it, stupidity, illiteracy and foolish risk-taking. (You might be surprised how many people die each year trying to out-run trains at gated and lighted crossings.) This is yet another one of those cases where we taxpayers aren’t willing to pay the cost of the kind of enforcement needed to demonstrate that responsible driving is a civic responsibility, not something you can choose to ignore. I can’t end this comment without noting that of the most genuinely unsafe drivers my wife and I saw on the road this past weekend were people driving jacked up pickups with Tea Party license plates. (The others were driving while talking on the phone and, in one case, trying to drive while having the newspaper spread open across the steering wheel.)

    1. larryg Avatar

      I live in a county of about 125,000 folks. After I got a smartphone, I took advantage of signing up for text messages from 911- emergency .. which basically gives notices and warnings about various things 98% related to road closures due to MVA – motor vehicle accidents.

      well.. after I was signed up – I was shocked – at just how many MVA text messages I am receiving…usually several a day – mostly in the am and pm rush hours.

      the vast majority of these are not ‘safety’ issues. they are – to put it more nicely than it should be – “accidents”.

      In my world – an accident is something like running over something in the road..and getting spun out .. something you really did not have much of an opportunity to avoid.

      the vast majority of these “accidents” are not unavoidable circumstances.

      they often involve one or more people doing something stupid that then drags others whose only failing was to not be more vigilant to dumbasses and they got sucked into their dumb world.

      oftentimes it’s the case of two more – both doing something half-stupid and when there are two of you – it adds up to one full stupid.

      I know I sound like a broken record – but we have an epidemic of cell phone use while driving – and we seem to be somewhat forgiving of it but I feel it’s just as irresponsible as drinking 3 beers then getting into your car.

      you KNOW what you are doing and YOU KNOW it’s unsafe and can end up badly but apparently some of us cannot stop doing it .. and I’m talking about Moms in mini-vans with kids in the back seat and that kind of thing.

      this is the predominate way we have accidents.. not some traffic signal malfunction or a badly-designed intersection.

      one of the most hated road safety devices these days is – roundabouts.

      they force people to slow down and negotiate the roundabout and whatever accidents occur – they are low-speed sideswipes rather than at-speed T-bone crashes at traffic signals but people hate round-a-bouts almost as much as they hate tolls or gas taxes.. because – it makes them slow down.

  3. larryg Avatar

    Folks who wonder about VDOT’s “plan” for the state might want to read this slide presentation:

    Corridors of Statewide Significance Prioritization Process

    This is a statement of declaration by VDOT of certain roads in the state that they consider key corridors that they will prioritize with rules and funding.

    they will, for instance, endeavor to have counties include in their own comp plans these corridors – and to preserve the adjacent lands, i.e. do not develop the adjacent lands… VDOT already reviews most development proposals that affect primary and major arterial roads beyond secondary.

    most of these roads – are 4-laned or if not , will be prioritized to be 4-laned but instead of interstate grade restrictions – they will have curb cuts and medians – but the rules for each will be stricter than other roads not so designated.

    you will also find that more than one location on these Corridors of Statewide Significance – have been also designated by Smart Growth folks as “stroads”.

    the irony is that both VDOT and the Smart Growth folks see the willy-nilly, no-holds-barred commercial development as a bad thing but their solutions are polar opposites.

    VDOT wants to stomp out the things that degrade the corridor as a major arterial while the Smart Growth folks believe that things should be done to discourage auto traffic and turn it into a “place”.

    Corridors of Statewide significance – the idea of designating roads in this way is not something new. The original US-signed road network was and is very similar and, in fact these corridors are all US-signed roads in the original system. see : United States Numbered Highways


    The system of United States Numbered Highways (often called U.S. Routes or U.S. Highways) is an integrated network of roads and highways numbered within a nationwide grid in the United States. As the designation and numbering of these highways were coordinated among the states, they are sometimes called Federal Highways, but the roadways have always been maintained by state or local governments since their initial designation in 1926.

    Before the U.S. Routes were designated, auto trails designated by auto trail associations were the main means of marking roads through the United States. In 1925, the Joint Board on Interstate Highways, recommended by the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO), worked to form a national numbering system to rationalize the roads.

    Expansion of the system continued until 1956, when the Interstate Highway System was formed. After construction was completed, many U.S. Routes were replaced by Interstate Highways for through traffic. Despite the Interstate system, U.S. Highways still form many important regional connections, and new routes are still being added.”

    In others words, the US/federal highways are also prioritized at the Federal level for funding and consistent designs and standards –

    and the question folks might ask – is why?

    and you’ll fine the answer to that question in the VDOT slide show:

    ” An integrated, multimodal system of transportation
    facilities that connect activity centers within and
    without the Commonwealth and promote the easy
    movement of people, services and goods vital to
    the economic prosperity of the state.”

    those are more than words. they are actions… that result in changes in these roads – when development is proposed or they are said to be “stroads”.

    No matter how one feels about VDOT (and I am a critic of some things), one
    has to admit – that at the very least – VDOT has thought about this – and they DO have a plan. How well they implement it – is a valid question but they do have a plan.

  4. but on surface streets (and the interstates) you cannot fix stupid

    I agree 100% with larryg on this one. I really don’t believe there’s even a ghost of a chance that a large quantity of money dumped into projects like Complete Streets would save me or someone I love from a future accident. I would expect the ROI on that to be almost zero, and meanwhile, that investment and redesign would be more likely to increase congestion, directly worsening my own life. Meanwhile, with additional congestion, road rage goes up, people take more chances, and my overall level of safety goes down.

    Better to save the tax money that would go to Complete Street design and pay it toward my life insurance. That way when the accident a Complete Street was supposed to prevent occurs anyway, at least my family isn’t out in the cold, mitigating the economic impact.

    In terms of multimodal transportation, I’ve always preferred separate ROW. For example, when cycling, a better street design will still never compare with the increase in safety you’d get by putting cycles in their own protected corridor.

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