Crashes vs. congestion

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So, what should be the over-arching goal of our transportation efforts in this country? Reducing vehicle crashes? Reducing traffic congestion? In terms of dollars, which effort offers the best return on investment (ROI) calculation?


From a new report out by AAA (a group formerly known as the American Automobile Association ... now its name is just an acronym) from a monetary perspective, we should be focus on crash reduction efforts - period.


AAA found in its research that cost to society from vehicle crashes is a staggering $164.2 billion per YEAR in the U.S. - nearly two and a half times greater than the $67.6 billion price tag for congestion. In its report - “Crashes vs. Congestion: What‘s the Cost to Society?” - the group said the dollar figures demonstrate that traffic safety issues warrant increased attention from the public and policymakers, particularly as Congress prepares to reauthorize federal transportation programs in 2009.


“Great work has been done by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) to quantify the costs of congestion, raise awareness for the problem and offer solutions,” said AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet, in terms of why his group went forward with is crashes vs. congestion report. “We feel safety deserves a similar focus.”


According to the study conducted by Cambridge Systematics for AAA, the $164.2 billion cost for crashes equates to an annual per person cost of $1,051, compared to $430 per person annually for congestion. These safety costs include medical, emergency and police services, property damage, lost productivity, and quality of life, among other things.


The report calculates the costs of crashes for the same metropolitan areas covered by the annual Urban Mobility Report conducted by TTI. In every metropolitan area studied, from very large to small, the results showed crash costs exceeded congestion, said AAA. For very large urban areas (more than 3 million), crash costs are nearly double those of congestion. Those costs rise to more than seven times congestion costs in small urban areas (less than 500,000) where congestion is less of a challenge.


“Nearly 43,000 people die on the nation's roadways each year,” said Darbelnet. “Yet, the annual tally of motor vehicle-related fatalities barely registers as a blip in most people‘s minds. It‘s time for motor vehicle crashes to be viewed as the public health threat they are. If there were two jumbo jets crashing every week, the government would ground all planes until we fixed the problem. Yet, we've come to accept this sort of death toll with car crashes.”


Darbelnet‘s comments I think strike a particularly important note here - heck, I‘ve harped on the same theme myself. It just seems the general public in this country is totally blasé about the consequences of vehicle crashes - it seems to be a routine part of the landscape, just background noise. Truck drivers I talk to constantly tell me of their near misses caused by simply sloppy driving on the part of motorists - lane changes without proper signals or distance between vehicles, distracted driving as people talk on the phone, read, and otherwise reduce the attention paid to the road they hurdle down at 60, 70, even 80 miles an hour.


“This report states what we in the highway safety field have known all along - traffic crashes are not only a leading cause of death and life-changing injuries, they‘re also a serious drain on the economy nationwide,” said Cathy Gillen, managing director of the Roadway Safety Foundation (RSF).


Maybe the dollar amounts quoted in AAA‘s study will finally get the publics‘ - and Congress‘ - attention. Then again, maybe not - this is a problem, after all, that‘s lagged in attention for decades now. One thing is for certain: we must address the cost of vehicle crashes sooner, not later. It‘s an unnecessary human tragedy and fiscal burden we can‘t afford to keep ignoring.

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