Crashes vs. Congestion – What’s the Cost to Society?

A report was released this week by the AAA calculating the costs of car crashes in major American cities. The primary finding is that crashes on public roadways cost far more per-person than does daily congestion. The study provides statistics for all of the same cities covered in the TTI’s Urban Mobility Report, which is also the basis of comparison for the AAA study’s findings. This per-person cost in large urban areas (which includes Portland) is a surprising $1,063; the per-person cost of congestion for those same cities is only $376. The report goes on to suggest that we devote more resources to preventing crashes than we do trying to prevent congestion, because it is a much more costly problem. Indeed, when 42,642 people are killed during one calendar year (2006) because of crashes on public roadways in America, we have a serious problem.

“Nearly 43,000 people die on the nation’s roadways each year,” said AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet. “Yet, the annual tally of motor vehicle-related fatalities barely registers as a blip in most people’s minds. It’s time for motor vehicle crashes to be viewed as the public health threat they are. If there were two jumbo jets crashing every week, the government would ground all planes until we fixed the problem. Yet, we’ve come to accept this sort of death toll with car crashes.”

Their recommendations:


  • Leadership and commitment are needed at the Federal, state, and local levels to make safety a priority in all transportation planning. Focusing planning and resources on safety improvements will not only save lives and prevent injuries, but can also reduce congestion.
  • Greater political will is needed to pass legislation and enforce laws that can have a positive impact on safety such as primary safety belt requirements, impaired driving countermeasures, and full implementation of graduated driver licensing systems.
  • Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation should ensure states follow through on implementation of their strategic highway safety plans and evaluate the results to determine effectiveness.
  • National safety goals should be established and strategies implemented to cut surface transportation fatalities in half by 2025, as recommended by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission.

Communication & Collaboration

  • The transportation safety community needs to develop more effective ways of getting the public to understand the impact of traffic crashes, the need for effective countermeasures, and the role their own behavior plays in safety.
  • Increased collaboration among traffic safety professionals, public health specialists, and health communications experts is needed to incorporate the best available science on behavior modification.

Research & Evaluation

  • Increased funding for testing and evaluation of safety interventions should be a priority. Programs should be based on sound scientific principles rather than “conventional wisdom,” populist fervor, or political expediency. Systematic evaluation allows identification and expansion of successful programs and interventions so that limited resources can be applied more effectively.
  • Further testing and implementation of a road risk assessment tool, e.g., U.S. Road Assessment Program (usRAP), should be encouraged to ensure dollars are spent on roads and bridges with the greatest safety problems. Understanding road safety risks will help state DOTs focus on solutions that will have the greatest safety benefits and should result in broader public support for needed improvements.

Graduated driver licensing systems? Getting the public to understand…the role their own behavior plays in safety? Behavior modification? As a proponent of much tougher licensing requirements and mandatory driver training programs for new drivers this is music to my ears. But how will the public at-large interpret this? Much has been made of the cost of congestion, and that is certainly what the AAA is playing off with this report. Will this get the same play as the congestion report in the halls of congress, state legislatures, and city hall?

Read the executive summary; or

Read the full report.

24 responses to “Crashes vs. Congestion – What’s the Cost to Society?”

  1. Since approximately 50 percent of the crashes in Portland that involve bicyclists are the fault of the bicyclist, the magnitude of getting bicyclists to understand their own behavior when it comes to abiding by traffic laws, mandatory bicycle safety instruction, programs and licensing all take on a new urgency towards implementation.

  2. Douglas K says:

    I remember reading (I’m not sure where) that a fair amount of freeway congestion in the Portland area is due to accidents.

    Indeed. One of the key findings of the AAA report:

    Improving safety may improve congestion. Forty to 50 percent of all nonrecurring congestion is associated with traffic incidents.

  3. Terry just admited that at least half of all crashes in the city that involve cyclists are the fault of the motorist. Good to see you opening your mind a bit, Terry.

  4. Let’s not get distracted so soon with the bicycle tangent … the original topic didn’t mention bikes at all.

    What can be done to reduce accidents in general, and therefore costs and congestion, not mention injury…

  5. Sure, this makes intuitive sense. Crashes cost more than congestion. Congestion is a sort of indirect cost, while crashes have very direct (as well as indirect) costs — not just deductibles and higher rates for insured drivers, but all kinds of other expenses. And then there’s the fatalities. How can you ascribe cost to human life? Plus funeral expenses, lost income and the effect that may have on family and dependents — I think that this per-capita figure is, if anything, low.

    More definitely needs to be done. While I agree that we should more more towards the German model of automobile licensing, I think we should also focus on providing more realistic alternatives to driving for more people.

  6. Stronger penalties for bad drivers would solve a lot of problems. I think a “1 DUI and you lose your license for life” law would make the streets a lot safer, not just because it would take the habitual offenders off the streets, but also because it would make everyone else think twice before they drove home with a beer or two under their belt.

    For instance, right now you can have 2 DUIs and been involved in an illegal road race and still be allowed to drive as a police officer.

  7. “”1 DUI and you lose your license for life”

    ~~>That’s ridiculous! All you’ll have is loads of unlicensed and uninsured people on the roadways!

    What’s interesting about this subject is how little concern there is for traffic deaths.

    WTC bad tragedy, but its actually nothing when compared to traffic deaths/injuries.

    Americans live in this funny little reality.

    Traffic deaths, no big deal.

    Toxic fast food, hey we like it.

    Look at this numb skull Spitzer of New York. He was doing good things but couldn’t keep his dick in his pants, so he’s driven out of office.

    Meanwhile, BUSH starts an immoral war based on falsehoods killing thousands of innocents and that’s ok.

    That’s how things are in this country.

    It’s good for business to keep people dying on the roadways.

  8. “That’s ridiculous! All you’ll have is loads of unlicensed and uninsured people on the roadways!”

    How is that ridiculous? We aren’t talking about an accident where someone made a mistake in a few seconds. It takes a while to get drunk in the first place, and then you have to get in the car, start it, and drive a while before you get caught. And if you can’t figure out that you are drunk in that time period, then you shouldn’t be allowed to drive at all. It isn’t like taxis and designated drivers and buses (although they shut down before the bars close) aren’t around anyways, people are actively choosing to drive drunk, and they should stop doing that.

    Yes, it may sound a little harsh, but look at our attitude towards murder. If you kill someone, you’ll go to jail for a long time, even though I’m fairly sure you could get drunk, fly into a rage and beat someone to death in less time than it takes to get your keys and you coat and go start the car and drive far enough to get caught by the police…

    In any case, there should also be a law that you can’t sell/lend/etc a car to someone that doesn’t have a driver’s license, (or you’ll lose yours.) I don’t know how unlicensed drivers are getting cars in the first place, but it really seems like it should be fairly easy to cut off the supply.

    And if losing your license is such a big deal, then maybe we should make it easier to get around without one…

  9. “How is that ridiculous? ”

    People don’t stop driving just cause they don’t have a license!

    And everybody is entitled to make one mistake in life without having their entire future ripped apart!

    I would like to point out that all this “get tough” on crime stuff that started with Reagan is having the


    reaction! The prisons are full of people and crime is worse than ever, no matter what the studies are saying, their full of [expletive deleted].

    The war on drugs is a miserable failure. the war in Iraq is a miserable failure, the economy is sliding into the toilet etc etc.

    If you live in rural America and lose your license to drive your DEAD!

    And I also have a problem with people getting pulled over for broken tail light getting busted for drinking.

    What kind of country does that to its citizens?

  10. $100/year annual driver licensing fee.
    50 question test, must pass with 85% or higher score, license issued for one year only.
    Any traffic citation other than a very simple misdemeanor includes a suspension of driving privileges (even if as little as three days or a week).
    Any violation that results in loss of life where the licensee is at fault is permanent loss of driving privileges (assuming they aren’t found guilty of murder and given a life prison sentence).
    16-17 year olds can obtain a license but must pass a more stringent (100 question) test, and have other restrictions.
    Regular license permits you to drive a vehicle less than 5,000 pounds loaded weight, no trailers. Must have a graduated license to drive a larger vehicle (i.e. certain large trucks/SUVs, haul trailers) from 5,001 to 15,999 pounds).
    Minimum insurance requirement now $1 million dollars per incident, and insurance is now tied to the licensee (driver) and not the motor vehicle so that every licensed driver must have insurance.
    Regular license allows no more than three passengers plus driver, regardless of the vehicle capacity. Must have a graduated license to carry more passengers.
    If you are caught without a license and/or insurance – first offense $5,000 fine, forfeiture of vehicle. Second offense one year in jail, additional year loss of driving privileges. Third offense five years jail, permanent loss of driving privileges.

    And there will be no such “hardship” exemption. The only valid defense to drive without a license is if someone’s life is endangered and there is absolutely, positively no other way to transport the person to seek medical assistance. (i.e. the nearest Ambulance is a half hour away!)

    Oh, and if you are illegally in the country and get caught without a license/insurance, you get a one way bus ticket to the border in a secured prisoner transport bus, no questions asked, no trial held. Too bad if you have family here who won’t hear from you until you get across the border and find a pay phone.

    Further there will be a true “citizen reporting system” where one will be able to call in complaints about other drivers. If a particular licensed driver receives five such complaints (from unique callers) they can be called in to take a test; failure to take the re-test will result in automatic suspension of license.

    DUI law changed, legal limit is now 0.04 BAC (if you’re over 21); however any sign of impairment can be considered reckless driving regardless of BAC.

    Couple that with TOUGH enforcement and traffic problems will go WAY down.

    Al – your comment about the broken tail light…frankly, I like seeing that law enforced. Now if it could be enforced against bicyclists too. Now that I’ve been riding my bike, I am shocked at how many bicyclists that I see that have no common sense – no lights, dark clothing, even refuse to wear a helmet. And my favorite was a bicyclist riding a tandem bike who pulled up and blocked a crosswalk right in front of me (after I had stopped, and all other traffic had stopped. He just decided to go (running a stop sign), and I had nowhere to go – and he even dismounted his bike IN THE STREET, entirely blocking the ramp!))

  11. “your comment about the broken tail light…frankly, I like seeing that law enforced.”

    Sure Erik, but only for broken tail light, not DUI!

    And I agree about the bikes, they should definitely be cited for no tail/head lights after dark!

  12. “What kind of country does that to its citizens?”

    Civilized ones.

    Germany: 0.11 -> lose license
    Norway: 0.05 -> lose license

    Keep in mind that the legal definition of drunk is much lower in other countries too. You are drunk driving in Sweden at 0.02, once you hit 0.10 you are looking at a 1-3 year suspension…

    I’m not suggesting locking people in prison for DUIs, (although other people are: you’ll get 5 years in Germany for being over 0.11 BAC,) I’m suggesting that we make driving a privilege, not a right.

  13. Minimum insurance requirement now $1 million dollars per incident…


    Try one that people might support. $1m per accident? Won’t happen, ever. It’s an unfair cost barrier, courts will shoot it down.

    Why not pass a poll tax, or literacy test to vote?

  14. Why not pass a poll tax, or literacy test to vote?

    I may not agree with a minimum $1M insurance policy mandate, but this is not a satisfactory comparison. Voting is a constitutionally protected right. Driving on public roadways is a government regulated privilege, not a protected right.

    However, I do think Erik is spot on with most of his suggestions.

  15. I just looked at that chart of yours and it sure appears to me that the law is MUCH MORE TOLERANT about the whole issue of drinking and driving!


    if I’m not mistaken don’t most of those countries allow people of the age of 18 the legal right to drink.

    And do they have ‘entrapment’ procedures like pulling someone over for broken tail light then hauling them off to jail for DUI?

    I know European countries for a fact are much more tolerant (civilized) than the USA on many more issues including substance abuse problems.

    LOCK EM UP FOREVER is distinctly an American concept. Amerika is the least civilized of the so called ‘advanced’ civilizations on earth.

    A dog eat dog culture where if you don’t have money or access to money you basically just die, sometimes on the streets. The only other places you see that are third world countries. You do not see that in Western European-Canadian societies.

    Even Britain has national health care.

    Lock em up, throw away the key, life will be better for the rest of us eh?


  16. I also think Erik’s list strikes a pretty good balance between effectiveness and realism, 1 or 2 items excepted.

    The biggest problem we have, IMHO, with DUI enforcement, is because we don’t provide realistic alternatives to driving in most places (including most US cities), it is not reasonable to take away a driver’s license except in the most egregious circumstances. Since loss of license = loss of job to most Americans, taking away driving privileges means putting them on welfare. So, double, triple, quadruple DUI offenders get their license back because they need it to work. If we had reasonable transit service in all of our cities, license revocation becomes much more feasible.

    And getting repeat offenders off our urban roads is the biggest issue. Rural DUI offenders are problematic, but less so when there are few other people around.

    And then, of course, having transit options allows those who’ve had too much to drink to simply leave their car and use transit, avoiding the DUI.

    The conclusion I draw is that we will not solve this problem until we have provided reasonable options to driving in every urban area. Investing almost exclusively in highways has the inevitable result of killing Americans, many many more than any terrorist attack or natural disaster.

  17. Al M: so you know, bicyclists are not required by law to have a rear light, only a rear reflector. So they can’t be cited for that.

    And for all the attention on DUI, speed plays a higher role in crashes. That is, half of all crashes involve excessive speed, where 40% of crashes involve intoxicants. We pretty much need to redesign our streets and our attitudes to slow speeders down.

  18. Actually having lots of young, crazy bicyclists racing around will cause folks in cars to slow down…saving lives. Bikes…traffic calming in motion. Speed kills or, if not that, maims.

  19. “so you know, bicyclists are not required by law to have a rear light, only a rear reflector. ”

    That’s a REAL problem and needs to change!

  20. “Actually having lots of young, crazy bicyclists racing around will cause folks in cars to slow down…saving lives.”

    I assume that’s an off the cuff remark and you don’t actually believe that.

  21. “And do they have ‘entrapment’ procedures like pulling someone over for broken tail light then hauling them off to jail for DUI?”

    Nope. The police just setup a roadblock and check everyone driving down the street. Sure, they can stop and check you for other reasons too, but Germany, England, Canada, and the US are the only countries in that table that don’t just check everyone.

    Here is the quote on New Zealand:
    “New Zealand operates a random breath testing program called “compulsory breath testing” (CBT). CBT laws give the police the power to test any driver, anytime, and anywhere without first having a good cause to suspect that the driver has been drinking. CBT is usually conducted at check-points although the law also allows mobile patrols to stop and test any driver. Each police district is contracted to deliver a certain number of hours of alcohol enforcement in their local communities. Standards for the level and types of alcohol enforcement activities are specified including CBT operations.”

    In other words, not only are sobriety checkpoints legal, but the police have to do a certain minimum number of hours of them a week. (Talk about a ticket quota.)

    “if I’m not mistaken don’t most of those countries allow people of the age of 18 the legal right to drink. … I know European countries for a fact are much more tolerant (civilized) than the USA on many more issues including substance abuse problems.”

    Yes they are, as long as you don’t endanger other people with your substance abuse problems. In the US we lock up people with substance abuse problems, but we don’t lock up the people that actually endanger each other. We’ve got it all backwards: Stealing a car has a much shorter sentence than taking drugs, even though one of them has a victim and the other one doesn’t. (And no, the solution isn’t to send robbers to jail longer, the solution is to not send the drug addicts to jail in the first place.)

  22. “”We’ve got it all backwards: Stealing a car has a much shorter sentence than taking drugs, even though one of them has a victim and the other one doesn’t. (And no, the solution isn’t to send robbers to jail longer, the solution is to not send the drug addicts to jail in the first place.)””


    we are in agreement!

  23. That is, half of all crashes involve excessive speed…

    I’ve always felt this is one of the most misleading statistics out there. My truck was hit by a car that was doing several things that were incredible dangerous (passing a disabled vehicle on the right side, on the shoulder, at full speed). The police chalked it up to “speed related” rather than calling it “dumbass related,” which would have been much more accurate.

    Other “speed related” accidents I’ve seen the reports of included red light running, stop sign running, reckless driving, etc. Most of these cases the driver at fault was going under the speed limit, but since they drove into someone the police involved chalked it up to being a speed related accident.

    Not that I’m condoning driving at 50 mph in a 25 mph residential neighborhood, I just think the statistics seem to be fundamentally flawed if “speed related” means the vehicle was moving in any way.

    And Matthew, I agree with you 100% that the system overall doesn’t balance the right crimes with the punishments. I remember reading a news article out of Denver a few years ago where someone had shot a uniformed police officer in the face, and got only a four to seven year prison sentence for doing so.

    Yet there are people serving life for growing some plants. We’d better let another car thief or ten time DUI’er out of prison if there’s a stoner we can jail!

    (And yes, I too am shocked to agree so much with both Al and Matthew on the same topic.)

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