Is it really possible that skyrocketing gas prices — the kind that really mean that you have no choice but to spend your vacation at the gas station – could have an upside?
A study just released by Harvard University Medical School and the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Lister Hill Center for Health Policy claims that if gas remains at $4 a gallon or higher for a year or more, annual U.S. traffic deaths could drop by about one-third, or 12,000 people.
This isn’t rocket science, said the study’s co-authors Michael Morrisey (Lister Hill Center) and David Grabowski (Harvard Medical School.) Deaths from traffic accidents, they reasoned, drop significantly as people slow down and drive less.
Morrisey said the study also found the “same kind of symmetry” between gas prices and auto deaths when prices go down. “When that happens we drive more, we drive bigger cars, we drive faster and fatalities are higher.”
“It is remarkable to think that a percent change in gas prices can equal lives saved, which is what our data show,” he continued. “For every 10 percent rise in gas prices, fatalities are reduced by 2.3 percent. The effects are even more dramatic for teen drivers.”
The UAB-Harvard findings did show the more restrictive graduated license programs helped reduce traffic deaths by 24 percent among drivers aged 15 to 17.
The Fatality Analysis Reporting System notes that, in 2006, there were 42,642 total U.S. traffic deaths from 38,588 fatal crashes. The Morrissey/Grabowski research included death rates and gas price changes from 1985 through 2006, and the calculated percent of reduction in fatalities can be extrapolated to 2008 and beyond.
The study was conducted, according to the co-authors, because early research showed lower gas prices have the opposite effect by wiping away many of lifesaving outcomes from the enactment of mandatory seatbelt laws, lower blood alcohol limits and graduated drivers licenses for youth.
Study findings were presented at a meeting of the American Society of Health Economists in North Carolina. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.