Study Links Increasing Fuel Costs To Steep Drop in Traffic Fatalities

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Motorists continue to grumble about record high gas prices, but a new study suggests there is at least one benefit: Fewer traffic fatalities.

As prices at the pump soared above $4 a gallon, road fatalities have plummeted nationwide, according to a study by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. If current trends continue, traffic deaths this year could reach a low not seen since 1961, when the Beatles were playing small clubs in Liverpool and gas was about 31 cents a gallon.

The study's author, Michael Sivak, said that high fuel costs have not only kept more cars off the road, they have transformed the way people drive. There is evidence that many motorists are slowing down to conserve fuel, which contributes to fewer and less severe crashes, he said.

In addition, drivers are cutting back on nonessential trips and leisure driving, which tend to occur at night and on weekends when driving is more hazardous than during a slow commute. And low-income teens and seniors, who have been hit harder by high prices and tend to have more crashes, are driving less to save money, Sivak said.

"There's a major behavioral change afoot," he said. Such decreases in fatalities are "unheard of in traffic safety literature."

Sivak's study looked at monthly nationwide road fatalities from May 2007 through April. In the first 10 months of the period, monthly totals were, on average, 4.2 percent lower than in the same month the year prior -- a significant decrease in itself, he said. But in March and April, road deaths dropped sharply, falling by 22.1 percent and 17.9 percent, respectively.

The drops far outpaced decreases in miles traveled and gas sold during that period, suggesting that people were driving less often and more safely, Sivak said.

In the Washington area, results are mixed. Last month, Virginia recorded 78 traffic fatalities, down from 102 in July 2007, according to preliminary data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Maryland has reported 347 road deaths so far this year, compared with 331 during the same period last year, according to the Maryland State Police.

David Buck, spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said the tally in Maryland should serve as a reminder not to read too much into data collected during a relatively short period of time. He also noted that motorcycle-related deaths have continued to climb.

Traffic deaths are "still an epidemic, still a public health issue," Buck said.

Nationwide, traffic deaths last dipped below 37,000 in 1961. The number peaked in 1972, at about 55,000, and in recent years has hovered near 42,000, Sivak said.

High gas prices have changed the habits of commuters across the country. People are using public transportation, scooters and motorcycles, and working from home.

Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said he experienced the changes firsthand during a recent drive to Richmond. Traffic moved at a mere 70 mph.

"I can't remember when somewhere around 70 miles per hour was the average speed of traffic on 95," Anderson said of the interstate. "There are certainly many drivers out there who have taken some steps to reduce the amount of gas they are burning. . . . That is one of the few good sides to very high gas prices: That if people drive less, we're going to save lives."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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