With the exception of one year in the mid-1960s, roadway fatalities per vehicle mile decreased each and every year from the 1920s until 2014. That trend was derailed in 2015 as fatalities increased by 7 percent. Now the results are in for 2016 and deaths increased by another 6 percent over 2015. In two years, therefore, highway fatalities have jumped by 14 percent. In some states, like Alabama, roadway deaths are up by a shocking 25 percent. Again, this recent spike in crash deaths has no precedent in roughly the last 90 years.
The reason for the increase depends on whom you ask. The New York Times, with its typically statist bias, claims that government is not doing enough to enforce safety laws.
Government officials and safety advocates contend, however, that more than anything else, the increase in deaths has been caused by more lenient enforcement of seatbelt, drunken driving and speeding regulations by authorities and a reluctance by lawmakers to pass more restrictive measures.
A patchwork of state laws leaves many areas where drivers can choose not to buckle up, with little likelihood of being stopped. Only 18 states have laws requiring seatbelts for both front and rear occupants and categorize not wearing them as a primary offense — meaning drivers can be pulled over for that alone. In 15 states, failure to wear a seatbelt in front seats is only a secondary offense — drivers cannot be given tickets unless they are pulled over for other violations.
“It’s still the same things that are killing drivers — belts, booze and speed,” Mr. Adkins said.
Well, I really doubt that people have in the last two years just decided to stop wearing their seat belts, but maybe there’s some truth to the ‘booze and speed’ part.
Quoting the insurance industry, a report by the Wall Street Journal (see below) emphasizes an increase in distracted driving due to smart phones. There’s not a lot of hard data, because nobody knows exactly what people do in their cars, but this is what the insurance industry is saying.
Personally, I have noticed while walking the dog around the neighborhood a shocking number of people looking down at their phones while driving. And these are people who are still driving within the subdivision, which means they are still only a block or two from home. People apparently hop into the car and immediately whip out the phone. If they had to make a call or send a text, couldn’t they have done so before leaving? It seems that people just can’t take a break from their phone addiction.
Another possible reason for the two-year increase in fatalities, however, is the drop in the price of gas. As gas prices fall, people drive more, especially young and sketchy drivers, and traffic density increases. Neither the New York Times nor the Wall Street Journal had much to say about gas prices, but this effect needs to be accounted for.
For many months prior to the fall of 2014, the nationwide average gas price had fluctuated around $3.50. Then prices fell rapidly, and have until today fluctuated around about $2.30. That’s a drop of roughly 34 percent. Can this decrease in gas prices alone explain the 14 percent increase in fatalities?
Several years ago, Professor Guangqing Chi used data from Minnesota to estimate the impact of gas prices on the roadway death rate. He calculated that the elasticity of fatalities per vehicle mile with respect to the gas price was equal to -0.22. That means that every one percent drop in gas prices would be expected to increase fatalities per vehicle mile by 0.22 percent.
Multiplying this figure by the 34 percent drop in price yields a predicted increase in the fatality rate of 34(.22) = 7.5 percent. Using data from the Federal Reserve, I find that total vehicle miles in 2016, compared to 2014, were higher by almost exactly 6 percent. We therefore would expect an increase in total fatalities equal to [(1.075)x(1.06)-1]x100% = 14%. But 14 percent is exactly the increase observed. Remarkably, Professor Chi’s estimated elasticity predicts the increase in fatalities correctly to the exact percentage point.
I wish drivers would pay less attention to their phones, but Occam’s Razor suggests that the recent and unprecedented spike in road fatalities is essentially an unfortunate consequence of the significant drop in gas prices.