Wearing Your Seatbelt Could Save Billions

A new federal study looked at the staggering cost of car crashes and found that they are costing $230 billion a year — $820 for every man, woman and child in the United States.

In 2000, 41,821 people died in U.S. traffic accidents while 5.3 million people were injured. Damaged vehicles numbered 28 million.

The study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found accidents in 2000 led to $80 billion in lost productivity, $59 billion in property damage, $33 billion in medical costs and $26 billion in costs associated with travel delays.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said the money spent on medical costs alone equals the entire budget for federal highways.

"This should be interpreted as a call to action. This is everybody's problem," said Jeffrey Runge, NHTSA administrator. "Car crashes are not random acts of God. They are predictable, they occur in predictable patterns and therefore they are preventable."

The study showed that the costs of car crashes could be cut in half if drivers drove sober, slowed down and buckled up. Alcohol-related crashes cost $50 billion in 2000. Excessive speed cost another $40 billion, and failure to wear seat belts led to $26 billion in costs.

Runge told ABCNEWS that, "the thing that we can do right now, tonight, right now, to shave $26 billion off this total is to make sure that everyone buckles his or her seatbelt. It's very simple."

In the year 2000, 71 percent of Americans buckled up. Today that has reached 73 percent.

Runge urged more states to adopt primary seat belt laws. Under those laws, police stop and ticket a driver simply for not wearing a seat belt. Seventeen states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have primary seat belt laws.

States that have enacted primary belt laws have seen seat belt use go up 10 to 12 percent, according to NHTSA.

Highway safety advocates say what's also needed is stronger traffic safety and drunk driving laws, and better enforcement. "It's all about perception," said Sue Ferguson, with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "So people have to believe if they violate the law they are going to get caught. And in order for them to believe that you have to have sufficient enforcement out there and you have to have publicity about that enforcement."

Runge also called on the alcohol industry to take some "corporate responsibility" and to make sure that alcohol is not marketed to those at high risk — such as young people.

The high cost of traffic accidents isn't just borne by those involved in the crashes. The NHTSA study found that 75 percent of the costs are paid for by others in the form of higher insurance premiums, taxes and travel delays.

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