There has been much written about the recent drops in traffic fatalities being a result of the bad economy, or the efforts of traffic safety campaigns (which, however laudatory, sometimes doesn’t explain the full picture; Massachusetts has the lowest seat-belt-wearing rate in the country and also, paradoxically, has the nation’s lowest per-mile fatality rate).
A new brief paper by Michael Sivak, “Mechanisms involved in the recent large reductions in US road fatalities,” published in the latest issue of Injury Prevention, makes the case, as shown in the above graph, that road fatalities have dropped more than miles driven, suggesting it’s more than a mere “exposure” issue. “The reduction in road fatalities,” he argues, “is the result of a change not only in the amount of driving, but also in the type of driving.”
What’s changed? While miles traveled have dropped across the board, rural miles driven — which are more dangerous than urban miles driven — have had a particularly steep drop (probably because rural incomes are lower and thus more affected by the economy/higher fuel prices). Sivak also suggests, though this is more logical supposition than empirical fact, that discretionary driving (e.g., the trips we don’t have to make) has been the first to go in the national mileage profile. Discretionary driving is riskier than things like commuting to work, Sivak notes, as it tends to be marked by “higher speeds, greater involvement of alcohol, and more night-time driving.”
In other words, while the recent drops in fatalities are to be welcomed, it does not necessarily follow that they would hold once the money (and fuel) started flowing again.
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