Dear Dr. Gridlock:
In light of the horrific traffic delays we are experiencing in the metro area because of highway accidents, I am wondering whether there are any studies that address the full economic costs of such accidents.
While sitting for hours in such traffic, I think of the loss of productivity, of all the people who are dependent on hourly wages, those whose jobs are on the line if they are late to work, and local service companies who are paying their workers for unproductive time on the road, and people who miss doctor’s or other appointments and have to reschedule and take additional time off to do so — as well as the cost of police and fire emergency services, the cost of repairs to physical damage caused by an accident and so on. In addition, these long delays must also affect air quality and add to fuel costs for everyone on the road.
Obviously, an accident can be catastrophic to the people actually involved in all sorts of ways, and except in the case of a minor fender bender, insurance cannot begin to make many of these people whole.
When the speed limit on Interstate 295 was being strictly enforced, I was amazed at how easily traffic flowed and how few accidents there were. It was a great relief that travel times had become more predictable and slowdowns greatly reduced. At the slower speeds, it even seemed that drivers became more courteous to those who needed to change lanes for highway exits and entrances.
Is the cost to the public of enforcing traffic laws really any greater than the overall cost to the public of accidents?
— Pamela Haughton-Denniston,
In asking the question, Haughton-Denniston delivers a very good summation of the pervasiveness of the problem.
One note before addressing her concern: I don’t know of any highway in the D.C. region where speed limits are “strictly enforced,” in the sense that the fear of getting caught is strong enough to make drivers slow down.
There are some national studies that address the staggering cost of traffic crashes. (I’ll call them crashes rather than accidents, because in so many cases, there’s fault to be found with someone or something. The damage, injuries and deaths are not inevitable.)
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated the annual economic cost and societal harm of motor vehicle crashes at $836 billion, based on data for 2010.
In coming up with that price tag, the safety administration said it included such factors as productivity losses, property damage, medical and rehabilitation costs, congestion costs, legal and court costs, emergency services, insurance administration costs, costs to employers and lost quality of life.
Haven’t been in a crash and you’re thinking, what’s that to me besides some really big number?
Nearly 77 percent of the economic costs are paid through taxes, insurance premiums and congestion-related effects, such as travel delays, excess fuel consumption and environmental effects, the safety administration said.
The safety officials cited several ways people could help control these costs while protecting themselves. I’ll start with the recommendation that safety advocates most often cite to me: Wear your seat belt. Really, it sounds so simple, but it’s the one they always start with.
The safety administration’s study even put a dollar figure on that, saying that failure to wear seat belts was responsible for $69 billion in economic loss and harm to quality of life.
Here are some of the other numbers: Drunken driving cost $194 billion nationwide; speeding, $203 billion; distracted driving, $123 billion.
If the dollar part of traffic safety doesn’t seem like a big enough deal, consider this: Over the summer, the safety administration said traffic fatalities rose dramatically in 2015. The 35,092 deaths represented a 7.2 percent increase over 2014.
This month, the safety officials estimated that traffic deaths rose by 10.4 percent in the first half of 2016 over the first half of 2015.
In this column, we often exchange views on how badly drivers behave. It’s not just about venting. Driverless cars may be in our future, but until then, we’ll have to refocus on our own performance to stem those ghastly numbers.
Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.