What's Behind the Dramatic Drop in Highway Fatalities?

The dramatic decline in highway deaths in the United States in the past couple of years is the result of multiple factors, not just a reduction in driving or because of high fuel prices, according to new research from the University of Michigan.

The higher cost for fuel is the dominant factor, of course, but it has precipitated a change in driving habits, including less leisure and rural driving, both of which are more dangerous than urban driving, according to Michael Sivak of the university's Transportation Research Institute. Sivak published his findings in the June issue of the journal Injury Prevention.

"The reduction in road fatalities is the result of a change not only in the amount of driving, but also in the type of driving," Sivak said.

Road fatalities in the United States decreased in all months but one from January 2007, through December 2008, the latest month for which statistics are available. The National Safety Council has reported a continual decline in motor vehicle deaths of about 9 percent per year across the country. The decline occurred in 40 states and the District of Columbia, but several large states were not included in the study.

"Multiple Factors" Behind Decline

Most experts have attributed the decline to the lousy economy, which has caused many to reduce driving and stay closer to home, at a time when fuel prices have sometimes hovered around $4 per gallon, though they have since declined. But Sivak took a closer look, examining the correlation between distance driven, proportion of driving on rural roads, and the average price of gasoline.

Since people are more likely to give up leisure driving than commuting to work during a time of economic difficulty, the price of gas led to a much greater reduction in leisure driving, according to Sivak's study.

Those three variables accounted for 81 percent of reduction in road fatalities, Sivak said. Other factors include increased "vigilance" by law enforcement, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, and the simple fact that more people are wearing seat belts. According to the association, seat belts are probably worn by 90 percent of vehicle occupants these days, although that's difficult to measure.

Save Fuel, Save Lives?

It is likely that many people are also driving slower to conserve that precious fuel, according to the governor's association.

"Drivers may not slow down to save a life, but clearly they will slow down to save a buck," Barbara Harsha, executive director of the association, said earlier this year.

The death rate on the nation's roads declined in a similar way during the 1973-1974 Arab oil embargo, dropping by 17 percent from about 55,000 to 46,000. After the long lines at gas stations went away, the yearly deaths increased again to about 49,300, and then dropped to 44,000 in 1982-83, apparently because many states raised the drinking age to 21. Since that time the number has been flat at around 42,000 per year.

Booze, incidentally, is a big part of the reason the death rate is higher for leisure driving, according to some studies. During times of economic hardship, drinkers are more likely to indulge at home rather than at the local tavern.

A number of studies cited in Sivak's study also show that rural driving is more dangerous than urban driving. The roads are narrower, and people tend to drive faster, thus pushing the death rate up.

And maybe it's time to give Detroit a little credit. After fighting safety features for so many years because of fears that higher costs would lead to fewer customers, manufacturers finally came to the realization that safety sells. Today's cars have many features, including airbags and such routine things as better brakes that undoubtedly save many lives every year.

Thousands still die each year on the nation's roads, but the latest statistics are encouraging. Deaths are down 20 percent in Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Virginia. Fatalities increased in only four states in 2008, Delaware, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming.

What's troubling in all these figures, however, is the simple fact that it takes an economic emergency, or at least a financial downturn, to have a significant impact on highway fatalities. What does that tell us about our priorities?