The Costs of Traffic Accidents
Fixing Public Health with Self-Driving Cars

With gas prices falling all over the country people are paying less at the pump and driving more. But not all the consequences are good ones. Last week, the WSJ reported:

Traffic fatalities have been trending upward since 2014, when the price of gasoline plummeted and a strengthening economy spurred more travel. The average price at the pump has dropped more than a $1.30 per gallon, or 35%, since this time two years ago, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

States including Vermont, Oregon and New Hampshire have been particularly deadly since the upward trend started in 2014, according to preliminary estimates compiled by the NSC, an Illinois-based nonprofit that collects data from state authorities.

Nationwide, about 19,100 people, enough to fill 382 school buses, died in crashes between January and June of this year… Another 2.2 million were injured…

Traffic accidents are something we take for granted—an unpleasant but ultimately unavoidable element of our modern lives. But it’s really a far deadlier phenomenon than others that get much more media attention—gun massacres and terror attacks come to mind. Moreover, traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for people ages 15-20 years of age.

Beyond the grim cost in lives, there is a sizable economic impact. The NHTSA summarized the costs for 2010:

The economic costs of these crashes totaled $242 billion. Included in these losses are lost productivity, medical costs, legal and court costs, emergency service costs (EMS), insurance administration costs, congestion costs, property damage, and workplace losses. The $242 billion cost of motor vehicle crashes represents the equivalent of nearly $784 for each of the 308.7 million people living in the United States, and 1.6 percent of the $14.96 trillion real U.S. Gross Domestic Product for 2010. These figures include both police‐reported and unreported crashes. When quality of life valuations are considered, the total value of societal harm from motor vehicle crashes in 2010 was $836 billion.

Of that $242 billion price tag, road congestion associated with traffic accidents is a whopping $28 billion. This figure includes the costs of travel delays, wasted fuel, and environmental harm. (And this was before the latest uptick in deaths. The WSJ says that deaths in Vermont, Oregon and New Hampshire are up 82%, 70% and 61%, respectively, in the first half of 2016, in comparison with the first half of 2014.)

Advocates and analysts estimate that self-driving car technology has the potential to cut these numbers by 90 percent or more.

One thing is for sure: we can expect is a lot of pushback against self driving cars. Taxi drivers who hate Uber will loathe self-driving cars even more, and for completely understandable reasons, the Teamsters Union will fight against self-driving trucks as viciously (and as unscrupulously) as it possibly can.

There will be lots of problems with the transition to a nation of self-driving cars, but the benefits look certain to outweigh these. The public health, safety and environmental consequences of a much more efficient transportation system, and the enhancements to the standard of living of ordinary families when cars become cheaper, safer and less necessary (ride sharing in self-driving cars will mean that fewer people will have to bear the costs of owning a car for every adult in the household) mean moving up to a world of self driving cars should be a top priority for our political system.

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