Automobile Safety

V. Key Issues: Population Health >> E. Health Protection >> Unintentional Injuries >> Automobile Safety (last update 11.3.15)


Key Questions

What is the Size of the Automobile Safety Problem?

Highway fatalities have declined from 5.30 per 100,000 vehicle miles traveled in 1965 to 1.16 per 100,000 in 2009, the lowest rate on record.

Accident externalities related to congestion are substantial with the increase in traffic density from a typical additional driver increasing total statewide insurance costs of other drivers by $1,725–$3,239 per year in California, depending on the model. On balance, accident externalities are so large that a correcting tax per driver could raise $66 billion annually in California alone, and over $220 billion per year nationally (Abstract).

What is the Nature of the Automobile Safety Problem?

Part of the problem relates to auto congestion. Externalities appear to be substantial in traffic-dense states: in California, for example, we find that the increase in traffic density from a typical additional driver increases total statewide insurance costs of other drivers by $1,725–$3,239 per year. High–traffic density states have large economically and statistically significant externalities in all the statistical models used. In contrast, the accident externality per driver in low-traffic states appears quite small (Abstract).

What Are the Options for Improving Automobile Safety?

Federal Policy Options

State Policy Options

  • Public Health Law ResearchState Laws Restricting Driver Use of Mobile Communications Devices: Distracted-Driving Provisions, 1992-2010. 39 states and DC have at least one form of restriction on the use of MCDs in effect. The laws vary in the types of communication activities and categories of driver regulated, as well as enforcement mechanisms and punishments. No state completely bans use of MCDs by all drivers.
  • Given both that states regulate auto insurance and that the external accident-related cost of insurance imposed on other drivers due to congestion varies vary considerably across states, it would be more efficient to allow states rather than the federal government to tax drivers on the basis of the size of that cost: in a high-congestion state such as California, this could amount to $1,725 to $2,239 per driver (Abstract).

Local Policy Options


  • Greenwood, Brad and Sunil Wattal.  Show Me the Way to Go Home: An Empirical Investigation of Ride Sharing and Alcohol Related Motor Vehicle Homicide. In California cities studied, Uber’s presence is associated with a 3.6-5.6% decrease in the rate of alcohol-related deaths per quarter. With more than 13,000 deaths occurring nationally each year due to alcohol related car crashes at a cost of $37 billion, results indicate that a complete implementation of UberX would create a public welfare net of over $1.3 billion to American taxpayers and save roughly 500 lives annually. Moreover, with costs to the individual usually totaling between $5,000 and $12,000 for the first DUI offence, significant welfare accrues to the individual as well by leveraging these services.
  • A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver
  • Cell phone use while driving and attributable crash risk. Restricting cell phones while driving could have prevented an estimated 22 percent (i.e., 1.3 million) of the crashes in 2008.
  • Public Health Law ResearchDistracted Driving Laws. This database of laws provides a comprehensive view of the provisions of laws that restrict the use of mobile communication devices while driving for all 50 states and the District of Columbia between 1992, when first law was passed, through July 15, 2011. The dataset contains information on 22 dichotomous, continuous or categorical variables including, for example, activities regulated (e.g., texting versus talking, hands-free versus handheld), targeted populations, and exemptions.


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