You can’t put a price tag on human life. But to address the scourge of traffic violence, it helps to measure how much harm it inflicts. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has done that by attaching a dollar figure to the economic loss and human suffering caused by traffic crashes.
In a new report, “The Economic and Societal Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes, 2010,” NHTSA concludes that in 2010 motor vehicle crashes imposed “$277 billion in economic costs… and $594 billion in harm from the loss of life and the pain and decreased quality of life due to injuries.” That adds up $871 billion, or nearly $2,800 for every man, woman, and child in the United States.
In the 300-page report, NHTSA researchers slice the numbers every which way. To assess what causes all this pain and suffering, they look at factors like speeding, alcohol, and driver distraction. The toll from reckless driving is staggering: $199 billion from drunk driving, $210 billion from speeding, $129 billion from distraction.
NHTSA has also been tracking the effects of seat belt use since 1975 and estimates that between 1975 and 2010, seat belts saved over 280,000 lives and prevented 7.2 million injuries, preventing a loss of $1.6 trillion in economic costs alone.
While the NHTSA exhaustively quantifies the preventive value of seat belts and motorcycle helmets, it doesn’t have much to say about street design. Compared to other sections of the report, the analysis of streets is shallow, looking at urban versus rural crashes and two-lane roads versus four-lane roads in urban areas, but not the types of design treatments proven to enhance safety. There are no tables or charts about how much misery can be prevented by road diets, traffic calming, protected space for walking and biking, and other street design elements.
It may be difficult to measure the impact of street design, but the same could probably be said of many metrics in this mammoth report. Countries like Germany and the Netherlands are far ahead of America on traffic safety. NHTSA could help America catch up by producing a more comprehensive examination of how the U.S. can reduce the toll of traffic violence.