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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Driving Deaths Drop as Gas Prices Rise

New Study Reveals Reverse of Up to One-Third Annual Deaths

For some drivers, high gas prices could turn out to be a lifesaver. Professors Michael Morrisey of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and David Grabowski of Harvard Medical School say that gas prices are causing driving declines that could amount to a third fewer auto deaths each year, with the biggest drop likely to be among teen drivers.

The researchers say they found that for every 10 percent increase in gas prices there was a 2.3 percent decline in auto deaths. For those who drive between ages 15 to 17, the decline was 6 percent, and ages 18 to 21 saw a 3.2 percent decline.

Their study examined deaths from 1985 to 2006, when gas prices climbed to about $2.50 a gallon. Morrisey said he expects to see much greater drop - about 1,000 deaths a month – now that gas prices average more than $4 a gallon.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Morrisey said that annual auto deaths typically ranging from about 38,000 to 40,000 a year would drop by nearly a third, to 12,000 deaths per year.

"I think there is some silver lining here in higher gas prices in that we will see a public health gain," said Grabowski. He then cautioned that their estimated decline of 1,000 deaths a month could be offset somewhat by the recent move to smaller, lighter, more fuel-efficient cars and an increase in motorcycle and scooter use.

According to Morrisey, the study also found the "same kind of symmetry" between gas prices and auto deaths when prices go down.

"When that happens we drive more, we drive bigger cars, we drive faster and fatalities are higher," he said.

In an earlier study that covered 1983 to 2000, a nearly identical relationship was found between gas prices and auto deaths. The studies used figures compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, whose figures for 2007 have yet to be released.

In response to rising gas prices, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, Clarence Ditlow, said it makes sense that auto deaths would decline as driving decreases.

"There are a whole bunch of factors that are influenced by higher gasoline prices - teenagers don't have as much money, so you have the most risky drivers driving less; people are switching out of the bigger, older more dangerous vehicles, and people also know if they drive slower they're going to save gasoline," Ditlow said. "So, from a societal viewpoint, higher gasoline prices have a great number of benefits, and one of the most important benefits is fewer traffic fatalities."

However, Ditlow added that he would be "delighted and amazed" to see deaths drop by a third. He said the declines in driving, while record setting, still aren't dramatic enough to suggest such a dramatic drop is imminent.

Recently, the Department of Transportation said that Americans drove 1.4 billion fewer highway miles in April, marking the sixth month in a row that driving was down. This is a historic turnaround, after decades of annual increases in driving.

"We're out there on a limb a little bit," Morrisey admitted, "but given that we get such consistent stories across the two time periods (in both studies) with somewhat different methodology, they seem to be pretty robust estimates."

Morrisey and Grabowski’s findings were presented to a meeting of the American Society of Health Economists in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., last month. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation made the study possible.

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