Financial Fatalities

2012-11-14T00:00:00Z Financial FatalitiesBy Jim Gorzelany CTW Features nwitimes.com
November 14, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Researchers warn that an economic recovery could lead to a decrease in highway safety

While statistics compiled over the last several years show a steady reduction in traffic fatalities, highway deaths are sharply on the upswing during 2012, with transportation researchers cautioning that - of all things - the recovering economy could be to blame.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington, D.C., vehicle-related fatalities dropped from a peak of 43,510 in 2005 to 32,310 in 2011, which amounts to a 26 percent decrease. Conventional wisdom largely credits this reduction in vehicle-related deaths to better automobile occupant protection and accident-avoidance engineering, in accordance with stricter state drunk driving, seatbelt use and teen-driving laws.

Economic forces in play during that period, specifically rising gasoline prices coupled with the post-2008 recession, seem to have also played a critical role in saving lives. Concurrently, an otherwise welcome reversal of the nation's financial fortunes could already be causing a precipitous rise in highway fatalities. That's according to the report, "Road Safety in the United States: Are The (Relatively) Good Times Over?" from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Talk about a "good news, bad news" situation.

According to the report's author, Michael Sivak, Ph.D., the economic conditions during the recession forced many motorists to change their motoring patterns and habits - often drastically - by driving fewer miles and at slower speeds to help save fuel as a cost-cutting measure. "That change is very important because speed has a huge effect on both crash likelihood and crash consequences," he says. With more cash in their pockets, the worry is that many drivers will rediscover their extravagant lead-footed ways, and with dire consequences.

Also, Sivak notes that the faltering economy has resulted in fewer freight shipments than during boom times, which means there are fewer heavy trucks sharing the highways with passenger cars. This, in turn, has reduced the frequency of truck crashes, which generally have more severe consequences than those involving only lighter automobiles.

"The important aspect of these and other economic effects is that they are temporary," Sivak says. "Once the economy picks up, these effects will disappear or be greatly reduced."

What's more, the report doesn't even consider the potential ramifications of consumers trading in larger cars and SUVs for smaller and more fuel-efficient sedans and crossovers for economic or lifestyle considerations. A recent study of auto-insurance claims conducted by the Highway Loss Data Institute confirms the notion that the smallest rides on the road tend to afford the least amount of occupant protection in a crash. "Injury-claims data show something that crash test results can't, and that's the role that vehicle size plays," says HLDI senior vice-president Kim Hazelbaker. "We know that in the real world, if all else is equal, a larger, heavier vehicle does a better job at protecting its occupants than a smaller, lighter one. These claim frequencies demonstrate that clearly."

As mentioned earlier, reductions in vehicle-related deaths registered in recent years are already beginning to shift into reverse. According to preliminary data compiled by NHTSA, 16,290 people died in road accidents from January through June this year. That represents a nine percent increase over the same period during 2011 and is the most highway deaths registered during the first six months of a year since 2009.

The study offers no solutions to the problematic connection between highway safety and the nation's financial fortunes, other than to caution automakers and policymakers not to rest on their laurels, and certainly not to pull a muscle patting themselves on their backs, so to speak, by taking undue credit for recent gains in highway safety.

"Any sudden, large reduction in fatalities is likely only an unintended by-product of factors that influence the entire transportation system, such as a rapid change in the economy," Sivak concludes. "Most rapid, underlying changes are transient, and therefore their effects are mostly transient too."

As the old adage says, safety first.

(c) CTW Features

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