A decline in gas prices is often viewed by the American public as something positive: Some extra money in their pocket to take a road trip or the chance to forego public transportation to work and instead take their own car. But there is a downside: More traffic deaths.
That’s the conclusion reached so far by researchers at Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health. The trouble is that millions of other drivers are also taking advantage of these lower gas prices, and this ultimately means more vehicles on the road which increases the chances of a traffic-related injury or death.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) pegs the number of annual traffic deaths in recent years at about 30,000. A study currently underway at the school that focuses on the recession, the recent drop in gas prices and the effect these have had on traffic deaths. Preliminary results indicate that when gasoline prices drop by $1 annually, there is a more than 11 percent uptick in roadway fatalities.
The group most affected? Those drivers between the ages of 16 to 24 saw the highest increase in deaths, particularly those in the 18-to-24 range. The theory is that this group has far less disposable income. That means that when gas prices rise – or fall – they are the ones who are most vulnerable to the ill effects.
Researchers did not find any change insofar as it related to commercial versus non-commercial vehicles.
Overall, there is a direct correlation between the economy and the number of traffic deaths, researchers say. For example, researchers looked at unemployment rates, which spiked during the recession, and how that affected the number of people who died in auto accidents. What they found was that high unemployment rates resulted in substantially lower traffic fatalities involving commercial vehicles.
When the economy wasn’t doing so well, they were fewer overall drivers and also fewer commercial drivers traversing the highways. Researchers calculated that for every 1 percent drop in the overall unemployment rate, there was also a 9 percent decrease in motor vehicle deaths.
Now that the economy is regaining strength and unemployment rates are down, researchers say they expect the number of traffic deaths to once again go up.
One factor that could go against that – and to the favor of the traveling public – is safer vehicles. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports car accident deaths in late model vehicles fell by more than one-third between 2012 and 2015. Among 2011 vehicle models, nine vehicles have a driver death rate of zero. Still, there is a huge gap, as there are three models of vehicles that have death rates that exceed 100 per million registered vehicles annually. Researchers attributed this largely to improvements in vehicle design and safety technology, including electronic stability control features, rear view cameras and more.
The NHTSA reported in 2010, when 33,000 people were killed in traffic accidents, the economic cost of these crashes totaled $242 billion, which included lost productivity, medical costs, emergency service costs, insurance costs, property damage, workplace losses and legal and court costs.
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How the economy affects traffic fatalities, Jan. 21, 2016, Science Daily
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