The Frightful Cost of Traffic Accidents

Traffic accidents cost American motorists more than $160 billion a year, posing a burden twice that of traffic congestion, concludes a study conducted by Cambridge Systematics Inc. for the American Automobile Association.

According to press reports (the URL for the AAA report is not functioning this morning), car crashes cost motorists $164.2 billion a year, or about $1,050 per person. The financial burden of that wreckage far exceeds the estimated $67.6 billion annual cost for congestion. And the numbers, which take into account property damage, lost earnings, medical costs, emergency services, legal costs and travel delays, apparently don’t attribute a value to the 41,000 in lives lost in traffic accidents every year.

AAA recommends that lawmakers make safety a higher priority in transportation planning through measures such as stiffer laws on drunk driving and enforcement of seat-belt laws.

The findings also would seem to suggest that road-improvement projects with a safety emphasis might offer a superior economic return — not to mention save more lives and prevent more suffering — than projects built for congestion-relief purposes. Any Return on Investment analysis on competing road projects needs to take into account not just the cost of congestion and travel delays but traffic accidents. (Why don’t the auto insurance companies weigh in on the transportation funding debate?)

I must confess, I have largely neglected this angle in my coverage of transportation issues. I’ve heard Virginia Department of Transportation officials speak of safety, but I always thought of it as a ritual incantation. Thanks to this study, I can now say, “I get it.”

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  1. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Jim Bacon:

    You beat me too it!

    I was going to note the AAA study and point out that the long list of THE PROBLEM(s) WITH CARS missed that cost.

    There has to be some indirect costs as well. Not just “pain and suffering” but the lost productive time getting the car fixed, etc., etc.

    AAA pointed out that these costs are higher than the TAMU congestion costs.

    AAA did not point out that the way to solve the problem is to shift settlement patterns away from those that require use of Large, Private Autonomobiles and to patterns and densities of land use that can be supported by shared-vehicles.

    I wonder why?


  2. Anonymous Avatar

    This is also one of the reasons that trains “appear” to be more expensive.

    Common carriers have a much higher standard of safety, which means they spend far more on the equivalent of driver education, equipment maintenance, inspections, scheduling, etc.

    As a result they have far fewer accidents, but because they are shared vehicles, when they do have an accident there are multiple injuries or deaths and major delays.

    So, in the case of competing modes, your ROI analyis should consider costs of having and preventing (some) accidents (in the case of cars) and the cost of having and preventing (most) accidents in the case of trains.

    “The findings also would seem to suggest that road-improvement projects with a safety emphasis might offer a superior economic return — not to mention save more lives and prevent more suffering — than projects built for congestion-relief purposes.”

    Maybe, except that congestion is closely related to pollution. When they say the safety aspect is worth twice the congestion aspect, we don’t know if the pollution effects are included.

    If they only included the time costs of congestion, then their analysis might be too conservative. However, it doesn’t seem that a 2 to cost 1 factor is going to be overcome by the costs associated with pollution.

    If pollution effects are included, then what we have here is a case where the cost of reducing pollution/congestion is greater than the cost of increasing safety. Since reducing pollution increases one kind of safety, then what we really have is a clear cut case of getting more safety cheaper and sooner one way than the other.

    Apparently, there are times when it is better to spend your money on something other than pollution reduction. Except—-spending money on increasing traffic safety only helps the passengers, but spending the same money to prevent pollution helps everyone.

    Do you spend money to make a big immediate lifesaving change for a few, or a smaller, long term, potentially lifesaving Change for many?


  3. Anonymous Avatar

    It’s sad that only “costs” appear to make an impact in your frames of reference and not the shear number of people injured or killed in Virginia by motor vehicle crashes.

    From Virginia’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan…

    “Over the past decade, there have been 1.4 million crashes causing 805,000 injuries and 9,200 deaths with an annual cost estimated at $5.5 billion. For the decade, there were more deaths than the populations in any one of the following cities or towns: Norton, Emporia, Bedford, Covington, Buena Vista, Galax, Lexington, or Franklin. Since this affects our residents and visitors, we must raise transportation safety as one of the commonwealth’s top public health issues.

    Transportation Safety as a Health Issue

    Motor vehicle crashes affect our citizens, particularly our youth, more than any disease or crime. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA’s) Top 10 Leading Causes of Death in the United States, for ages 4 through 34, crash deaths were first, taking more lives than heart disease, cancer, stroke, homicide, suicide, drowning, poisoning, falls, fire, HIV or diabetes.3 Figure 1 shows that for ages 1 through 29 crashes are the leading cause of death in Virginia. Crash victims are usually working-age adults whose families are often left without a primary source of financial support. Crashes substantially impact the local community in medical costs, lost wages, insurance costs, taxes, police, fire and emergency services, legal and court costs as well as property damage. These crashes rob our families of their dreams and aspirations and replace them with unforeseen economic burdens, physical disabilities, and mental anguish.”

  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    * Air pollution claims 70,000 lives a year, nearly twice the number killed in traffic accidents

    * The American Lung Association estimated that, as far back as 1993-94, high levels of ozone in 13 cities resulted in 10,000 to 15,000 additional hospital admissions and 30,000 to 50,000 additional emergency room visits.

    * The annual cost of health damage from motor vehicle pollution is estimated to be between $29 billion and $530 billion.

    Compared with private vehicles, public transportation produces, on average, per passenger mile, 95 percent less carbon monoxide, 92 percent fewer volatile organic compounds, 45 percent less carbon dioxide and 48 percent less nitrogen oxide.

    now RH is gonna say…

    ” hundreds more kids and elderly would have died en route to hospitals via horse buggies instead of modern ambulances using modern road infrastructure”

    so .. as RH might say.. have we lost more people to accidents than we would have lost to horse buggies?

    RH would be proud of me.


  5. Anonymous Avatar


    Losing lives has an enormous cost, and one that is particularlry devastating to loved ones. I know. I lost a child that could have been saved.

    I also know that saving lives has a cost. When we spend more to save one, than we could have spent to save two others, then what have we done?


  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Larry is puttin words in my mouth, as ususal.

    The whole point of my comment was that we do not know, from the comment as posted, whether or not the appropriate additional morbidity/mortality that you cite from american lund association was included in the cost of traffic congestion or not.


  7. Anonymous Avatar

    This isn’t my example, so don’t jump all over my case.

    We lost about 2000 people during the 911 attack, and since then we have spent billions to prevent it happening again.

    We lose about 2000 people every year in swimming pool accidents.

    Where should we spend our preventive money?


  8. Anonymous Avatar

    Trains have a pretty low acccident rate, but they have accidents that kill hundreds, like the one in Tokyo.

    Trains kill around 500 pedetrians every year. Some of them are suicides.

    Trains carry only 2% of our passenger travel needs, so, simple math suggests that more trains will result in more pedestrian deaths and more train accidental deaths. More trains will mean more money spent on train safety to prevent such deaths.

    If we spent the same projected amount of money to prevent auto deaths, would we prevent more or less deaths?

    I don’t actually have a position or an agenda here. I just ask questions. If you cannot answer them, it is your problem not mine.

    I’ll say this though. Larry is right in saying that we would lose more people on the way to the hospital in buggies. You wouldn’t want the fire department to arrive at your house on the Metro.

    My only agenda is reason over dogma.

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    I have three boxes and one of them has a ten dollar bill in it. I ask you to pick one box, which you do.

    Then, without opening the box you chose, I show you that one of the other boxes does not have the prize.

    Then I tell you you can either keep your choice, or choose the remaining unopened box.

    What do you choose?


    The answer is as follows. In the beginning each box had a one third chance of being the “correct” box. After you choose one, the remaining two still have a 2/3 chance of having the correct box. After I show you that one is empty, the remaining one must still have the entire two thirds chance, while your original box still has 1/3 chance.

    The correct answer is that you must always ignore your first choice, in order to maximize your win possibility.

    Most people still see it as a 50/50 chance, but this is wrong.

    We have a tendency to predict what we wish will happen, even when the facts show otherwise.


  10. Anonymous Avatar

    some people believe it is worth any amount of money to execute a known killer. I’m inclined to agree with them.

    But then, additional, inconveneient facts pop up. Just as in the story with the boxes.

    We know that we sometimes execute innocent people. If it is worth an infinite amount to execute a murderer, then it must equally be worth an infinite amount to save an innocent man.

    We delude ourselves otherwise by saying that if he was REALLY innocent, then he wouldn’t be a suspect.

    At this point, I’m at an economical/ethical impasse; regardless of my feelings of passions.

    But there are other facts.

    It costs a hellacious amount to execute a man, so that we don’t execute an innocent one. We still aren’t civilized enough to spend an equal amount on both sides.

    What if it coss more to execute him than it would cost to just put him away?

    Then we wasted money and resources we could have used to save other lives. Whether we choose to spend it reducing pollution or reducing traffic risk, or promoting less risky train travel is another question.

    The fact remains we wasted valuable resources.


  11. Anonymous Avatar

    When British trins wer nationalized one of the problems they had was the cost of safety. Under government operation the standard of safety was an engineering one. If some engineer could dream up a gizmo or procedure to improve safety, then it was incorporated regardless of cost.

    Private operators had to weigh the cost of safety with the results. The results were thewrongful death awards made by the courts, with juries of people who probably rode the trains.

    After Britin privatized the trains, they had that horrible accident that killed hundreds.

    Somewhere in between is the right answer.


  12. Anonymous Avatar

    Are you more likely to die in a car or on a?

    Depends on how you measure.

    If you meaure in deaths per mile traveled, you are more likely to die in a car. If you measure in deaths per trip, you are more likely to die on a plane.


  13. Anonymous Avatar

    “Compared with private vehicles, public transportation produces, on average, per passenger mile, 95 percent less carbon monoxide, 92 percent fewer volatile organic compounds, 45 percent less carbon dioxide and 48 percent less nitrogen oxide.”

    I seriously doubt those numbers are correct.

    If you said “The potential is for ….”

    then I might believe it.

    Just last night I watched a bus traveling route 28 with one passenger on board.

    The problem as I see it is that there is a HUGE disconnect between what is potentially possible for transit, and what actually happens.

    The operating cost per passenger mile for Loudoun County transit is 85 centsper mile. I submit that cost is a good proxy for resources, and therfore LCT is more polluting than my Prius, based just on operating costs.

    And LCT has a much greater external cost than my Prius. And, if people beleive that crap, we will spend far more on transit, reduce the number of private vehicles, and pollute more in the process.

    Now, it is conceivable that private transit becomes so expensive that LCT never rides around with just one passenger, and then the numbers will change.

    When was the last time you saw a bus picking up someone at Lowes or Home Depot?


  14. Randall Wood Avatar
    Randall Wood

    The Insurance companies do have some effect, if not through open debate and direct lobbying. I have twice visited the National Highway Safety Institute (NHSI) (in Ruckersville?) while stationed in Charlottesville. The NHSI is the Insurance industry’s place to crash test cars, but it is also concerned with traffic safety and design and is currently pushing for safety improvements such as traffic circles and the like. Or at least they claim to be actively pushing for those kind of improvements.

  15. Anonymous Avatar

    What is the cost of wearing your seat belt on any given trip? What is the cost of not wearing your seat belt on any given trip? Why do halve of the deaths in Virginia involve unbelted occupant?

    What is the cost of a primary seat belt law in Virginia? Each year it is estimated by NHTSA that 81 lives saved out of the nearly 500 unbelted annually in Virginia.
    Unfortunately, the people who have other bad driving habits (speed, distracted, drowsy, or impaired) also don’t wear their seat belts. But they are willing to buckle in to avoid any contact with an officer.

    “The care of human life and happiness… is the first and only
    objective of good government.”
    Thomas Jefferson

    Our friends in Australia have it right…

  16. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Anonymous 4:52, I totally agree with you that improved transportation safety translates into lives saved and suffering spared.

    I tried to cover those bases when I wrote, “The findings also would seem to suggest that road-improvement projects with a safety emphasis might offer a superior economic return — NOT TO MENTION SAVE MORE LIVES AND PREVENT MORE SUFFERING — than projects built for congestion-relief purposes.

  17. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    There will never be enough money to make things as safe as they could be in a world where people are conveyed by vehicles rather than on foot.

    Machines break.

    Machines that we spend billions of dollars on and thousands of people building – to protect one or two people – break. just think Space Shuttle.

    the perverse statistical fact is that every time you add another safety device to an existing package – you actually INCREASE the odds of something breaking.

    I agree with the comment about the insurance companies and their daddies the Reinsurance Industry.

    I would actually submit that the various risks of the different modes are ALREADY incorporated in the process via actuarials – IF you buy insurance.

    and I further wanted to point out that van pools would be virtually impossible without government subsidy for the common-carrier insurance.

    As RH points out, the risk of incident is lower with a professional driver and appropriately equipped and maintained safety equipment but incidents are very expensive in terms of damages.

    So we really ALREADY do the tradeoffs that RH thinks we should be doing.

    We do it every time we try to get insurance and we get told how much the insurance will be. So the cost of the insurance IS, in fact, in many respects the bottom line cost-benefit tradeoff between choices.

  18. Anonymous Avatar

    “So we really ALREADY do the tradeoffs that RH thinks we should be doing.”

    I think that is mostly correct. A lot of stuff we worry and complain about is already compensated for, somewhere in the system.

    We do have some externalities that we tend to count in some situations, but ignore in others. We do have some inequalities that make some pay more than they should. What we don’t know is a) if it is worth the effort and expense to fix the inequalities, or b) if the other social benefits outweigh the inequalities anyway.

    “every time you add another safety device to an existing package – you actually INCREASE the odds of something breaking.”

    Yes, but it may do its job before it breaks. Redundancy is worth something, even if it adds to complexity. Think of those sand filled barrels they put up in front of the blunt end of guardrails. That really was a low tech piece of genius.


  19. Anonymous Avatar

    “What is the cost of wearing your seat belt on any given trip? “

    Anonymous is right. Some things are so cheap it’s crazy not to do them.


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