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?