One Year of Traffic Crashes Costs America $871 Billion

Traffic deaths and injuries account for the lion’s share of costs imposed by vehicular crashes in the United States. The annual toll amounts to about $2,800 per capita, according to the NHTSA. Table: NHTSA

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.

12 thoughts on One Year of Traffic Crashes Costs America $871 Billion

  1. Well, we don’t and we never did.

    (We let financiers run the country. And that is much, much worse.)

  2. This an appalling number, and should be getting more media attention. Instead, it is buried in the NY Times, which just ran the AP briefing in a couple of paragraphs.

    Would love to see a graph comparing the $871B with other expenditures, like the bailout.

  3. This is great information. Just a quick conservative back of the envelope computation:

    — percent of USA residents who live/work/learn in areas that could feasibly be served by quality alternative transit: 50%
    —- subset of those who would switch to quality alternative transit if it were provided: 25%
    —— reduction in fatalities and injuries due to mode switch: 15% or $130 billion per year (because trains derail and buses can run over people too)

    So if the USA could invest $130 billion per year over a decade ($1.3T total) to bring alternative transit up to the level that a quarter of the population would leave their cars at home then we would break even. Every year afterwards would be gravy.

    And this doesn’t even account for the intangible pain, suffering, and grief caused by collisions. It also doesn’t account for the other ways that the car-centric model degrades life: lost free time, land consumption, pollution, resource depletion, international affairs influenced by maintaining access to petroleum (economic favors, warfare, etc.)

  4. Trains, trams and streetcars don’t account for 25% of total passenger travel even in countries with highly developed networks like Netherlands, Germany and France.

    Your expectation is highly unrealistic. To make “a quarter of the population leave their cars at home”, you would need something akin to Swiss levels of depth, frequency and reliability of a public transit network, something that US$ 1.3 trillion (130B x 10, as you suggest), cannot possible deliver. Even if you were to assume European levels of costs (which are lower than American, and benefit from scale) of public transportation projects, you would still need something like many more trillion dollars to achieve “Swiss levels” of public transportation that could entice 85 million American adults to not use cars as a primary mean of transportation for their trips.

  5. This is not a proper comparison. These costs are born by the totality of the economy, not only by the government. It includes things like the economic valuation of lost wages and quality of life due to traffic-related injuries, for instance.

  6. Not necessarily, at least not on that level.

    Certainly, traffic accidents produce a lot of demand for many services and goods, from spare parts to prosthetic limbs, from insurance adjusters to trauma surgeons. However, this doesn’t mean that in absence of traffic accidents the initiators of demands wouldn’t spend money in something else, and it is in any case very hard to measure the net impact (spending less/not earning less money due to reduced crashes, households might spend more on – say – vacations, or the extra money could be put on bidding wars for real estate, or used for private education/ extracurricular for kids among many possible outcomes).

  7. I didn’t say it wouldn’t be spent on something else. It probably would. But either way, the tools of economics – macroeconomics, anyway – basically treat it as a positive thing.

  8. It doesn’t treat it as a positive thing, but as what it is: events that produce economic activity.

    To say that the GDP in a hurricane-stricken area increased for 2 years due to heavy reconstruction, for instance, is not to say we should long for more hurricanes, but instead merely recognizing the economic impact of – in this case – natural disasters on economic output.

    That is an objective measurement, not a moral judgment.

  9. Where are you getting moral shit from? Positive -> increases economic activity.

    (Of course, prevailing economic orthodox faith more or less has it that is inherently a good thing, at least in the absence of a disaster like the government stimulating demand with deficit. Or maybe they’d think a hurricane or something is a bad thing.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Old Solutions: U.S. DOT’s Proposed Strategic Plan Falls Short

Andy Clarke is the president of the League of American Bicyclists. This article originally appeared on the League’s blog. On Tuesday, August 27th the U.S. Department of Transportation released a draft strategic plan for public comment. The 94-page document lays out how the U.S. Department of Transportation proposes to manage our transportation system for the […]

The Death Toll From Cars Is Even Higher Than You Thought

Ten days ago, four-year-old Zain Ali Hussain was killed near Houston when a neighbor backed his pickup truck over him. At least 50 times a week, people back their cars over kids in the U.S. On average, two of those 50 incidents are fatal. But you won’t see them represented in official crash statistics. Every year, the […]

2010 Traffic Fatalities Could Fill 70 Jumbo Jets. And This Is Good News?

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced yesterday that 32,885 people lost their lives on our nation’s roads in 2010. While a staggering toll, this represents the lowest total number of traffic fatalities since 1949. “We’re making historic progress when it comes to improving safety on our nation’s roadways,” said LaHood in a statement, also pointing out […]

Senate Dems Unveil Auto Safety Legislation

Democrats are moving quickly on their plan to take a unified approach to auto safety reforms in the aftermath of the Toyota recalls, with Senate Commerce Committee members releasing a new bill today that would quintuple the maximum existing penalties for carmakers who — like Toyota — fail to promptly notify the public of defective […]