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Think congestion is costly? Consider vehicle crashes

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Highway traffic
A new study indicates that the Twin Cities rank 8th out of 26 for the cost of vehicle accidents.
MPR file photo

In poll after poll, drivers consistently cite traffic congestion as the thing that really bugs them.

"You lose time, you lose productivity, you waste fuel sitting in traffic, says Pam Beer, a senior researcher in the Washington, D. C. Office of Cambridge Systematics, a transportation consulting business.

The surveys even put a price on congestion.  In 2005 all that bumper to bumper, slow and go traffic cost the country's economy $67 billion.

But the new AAA study delivers a poke in the rib to drivers with the message it's not congestion, it's safety, that costs.

The study that Beer and her colleagues did for AAA puts a price tag on traffic crashes that dwarfs the cost of congestion.

The price tag uses a widely accepted formula of adding up the cost of the death, injury, health costs, property damage, time lost and other factors when drivers are killed or injured in vehicle crashes.

The total in 2005 was nearly two and half times the cost of congestion or more than $164 billion. Somehow we've grown callous to the cost of roadway carnage, says Pam Beer.

"I mean we kill almost 43,000 people every year on our highways and, what that is equivalent to, is two jumbo jets crashing every single week in this country.

Minnesota's 2005 roadway fatality total was 559 and has declined each year since then.

That now familiar air disaster comparison has gotten a lot of media play, but apparently the message is bouncing off drivers.  

It's true that vehicle fatalities and injuries as measured against miles driven and an increasing population are down.  

But as the AAA study points out, the total is still high and the cost is staggering. It seems safety is much less of a concern compared to 15 years ago when there was a big drop in traffic deaths and injuries, Beer says.

"People really began to pay attention to drunk driving and we had a real push for safety belts,"  she says.

Since then, vehicles are safer with air bags everywhere and better braking systems.  What, then, is the reason drivers appear so blase' about the risk to, and the cost of, losing life or limb but become volcanic over congestion?

Congestion is literally in our face, according to Beer.

"Fortunately, we're not in a crash every single day and so you tend not to think about it until you look at those cold hard numbers."

Here are the cold hard numbers for the Twin Cities.

The AAA study estimates  that in 2005 the cost to every Minneapolis-St. Paul area resident for traffic congestion was $436 per person - value of lost time, lost productivity and so on.

That same year, the AAA study says, the Twin Cities area cost per resident of crashes was $757. Numbers from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, by the way, arrive at a lower number.  

In either case the cost of crashes is still higher than congestion.  And then there's this to consider: more than one study concludes crashes account for up to half the congestion we encounter.

AAA is hoping the crash cost study will focus attention on safety.  The study should spur lawmakers to approve a law allowing for primary seat belt enforcement, says Gail Weinholzer, AAA spokeswoman for Minnesota and Iowa.

"Primary seat belt enforcement" is safety jargon for a law that would allow police to stop vehicles when passengers aren't wearing safety belts.

"We are one of a minority of states that don't have a primary enforcement for seat belts.   We're one of only four states that don't have an adequate graduated drivers license law for teens.  We're one of only 12 states that don't have a child passenger safety legislation in place," she says.

Minnesota lawmakers this session have a plateful of traffic safety ideas before them. They include some limits on teen driving, higher penalities for distracted driving and expansion of safe or sober ride home programs to name a few.

Held over from last session and still alive is a proven life saving idea, the primary or stronger seat belt enforcement proposal allowing police to stop drivers not using safety belts.