The Economic Cost of Traffic Accidents

One way to reduce traffic accidents is to keep the dad-gum moose off the road!

by James A. Bacon

In the course of researching another article, I’ve come across some fascinating data from an American Automobile Association report from two months ago, “Crashes Vs. Congestion: What’s the Cost to Society?

While public policy seems to focus mainly on the cost of congestion, the AAA contends that the cost of vehicle accidents is three times higher than that of congestion — roughly $300 billion a year vs. $98 billion in 2009. While congestion costs millions of Americans lost time valued at several hundred dollars each a year, accidents, though fewer in number, are astronomically higher in cost — $6 million for a fatality, $126,000 for an injury, plus property damage. When you consider that there are 30,000 fatalities and 2 million injuries a year, those numbers add up really quickly.

AAA provides a breakdown for Virginia’s three major metropolitan areas. It is interesting to see that the Richmond metro region has more fatalities than Hampton Roads, a region half again as large, and a rate considerably higher than metropolitan Washington, a region five times its size. While per-capita congestion costs increase with the size of metropolitan areas, the per-capita crash costs decline, the study finds.

The report contains an interesting discussion to explain the phenomenon:

A complex relationship exists between congestion and crashes. Although the evidence is mixed, less congested roadways appear to lead to fewer, but more severe, crashes. This relationship is especially strong in the case of crash severity; that is, more severe crashes occur on less congested roadways due in large part to faster speeds. On more congested roadways, the number of crashes may increase, but they may be primarily minor crashes reflecting the increased weaving and access/egress movements often occurring on congested road segments. Crashes may also lead to severe, unexpected congestion in an otherwise congestion-free roadway, reducing the level of service.

The study is an eye-opener for me. I have paid little attention to traffic safety issues, thinking them a second-order issue. Clearly, that’s not the case, as it shouldn’t be for anyone who values human life. I can plead only that the public policy debate has revolved mainly around easing congestion. I would speculate that’s because road builders and developers exercise a lot more clout in the General Assembly than AAA and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. If AAA’s numbers are close to accurate, a greater focus on safety would offer a much higher societal Return on Investment than a focus on congestion mitigation or even economic development. Perhaps our highest priorities should be micro investments like guard rails, wider shoulders, reflective lights, better law enforcement and the like, not laying more asphalt.

The high cost of automobile accidents also bears upon the question of which modes of transportation are preferable. Mass transit, I would speculate, has a much lower per-capita rate of accidents and economic loss due to accidents. I’m not sure that differential is properly factored into our modal funding priorities.

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7 responses to “The Economic Cost of Traffic Accidents”

  1. there’s a big hue and cry over texting on cell phones.

    Let me tell you – the problem is the number of people looking at whatever has popped up on their cell phone screen.

    It’s RAMPANT. It’s as if people cannot help themselves.

    I equate it to the kind of person who absolutely positively cannot NOT answer a land-line phone. That kind of person with a cell phone is a disaster waiting to happen in a car.

    They can outlaw texting all they want; THE problem is staring into that screen in your lap while going 60 mph.

    At some point – we’ll start to see credible traffic statistics about the accidents due to “driving under the ‘influence’ ” of that damned cell phone!

    next time you see someone driving too slow in the left lane or going slower than other traffic or slow away from the green.. give it a quick glance and you’ll see what I am seeing.

  2. You are probably right about the higher societal return and micro investments. Some teens were killed near hear on a road that has no shoulder, no reflectors, and not even paint along the . There is no centerline, even, because the road is not wide enough.

    In Fairfax it would hardly qualify as a bike path.

    If you drop a wheel off the edge, it is a toss up whether you will hit a tree or a ditch big enough for a tank trap.

    Not long ago I had to call rescue to fish two elderly people out of such a ditch. They had gotten out of their car for some reason and stepped off the edge.

    Just having paint on the road might have been enough to save those kids.

    Even on main roads the reflective paint is so deteriorated it is invisible in the rain.

    Even a road full of potholes deserves safety paint.

  3. Not so sure about transit accidents, though. The investigation and follow up is way over the top. They are still working on fixes for the last train crash. One of those cars costs , and when the brakes fall off one they inspect all of them.

  4. Darrell Avatar

    “The study is an eye-opener for me.”

    You need to get out more. Some of the safest drivers in the world live in Manila. We could obtain the same results by investing in more orange cones instead of more asphalt. 😉

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    The study is an eye opener?

    It’s hard to have a high velocity crash when you are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic?

    There are more crashes on congested roads than almost empty roads?

    Slow motion crashes are less severe than high velocity crashes?

    Darrell is right – you need to get out more.

    Hydra’s point about road safety is a good one. Nowhere is the reality of that better seen than in Great Falls, Va. Narrow roads with no shoulders, ditches and trees just off the roadway. The net result is several dead teenagers each year in a place with just over 8,500 residents. So, why not improve the roads? Because a loud minority of the residents believe that dangerous, winding roads enhance the semi-rural nature of Great Falls. Semi-rural? Is that like being semi-pregnant? In any regard, the sensitivities of some to preserve semi-ruralism are enough to cost several young people their lives each year. One must wonder if there is a semi-rural part of hell for these people?

  6. Thank you DJ.

    Paint is not a lot to ask for. Recently I made a left turn onto a small road, and I had no idea where to make the turn to avoid the ditches on both sides. No paint to show the edges.

    I imagine it is the same as the reason my alexandria neighborhood declined to have sidewalks. Rural effetism.

  7. the counties decide has to allocate secondary road funding. The state provides it but like anything else… priorities have to be established for what to spend it on and the county govt perform that role.

    I think this situation clearly illustrates the problem with VDOT being in charge all all roads and the county calling the shots on where to spend limited funding.

    VDOT gets the blame but in reality the county plays a central role in deciding what actually gets done -yet the perception is that it’s VDOT making these decisions.

    the counties make the calls according to the funding that is made available to them which is never enough to do everything that needs to be done.

    In a devolution scenario there would be no confusion as to who was responsible and citizens would not who was responsible and who to hold accountable.

    The current system allows the county to make choices but the blame goes to VDOT.

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