The financial cost of crashes in the US

The financial cost of road crashes in the US places a heavy burden.
February 1, 2023
By MJ Woof
Road crashes place a heavy economic and human burden on the US - image © courtesy of Mike Woof
Road crashes place a heavy economic and human burden on the US - image © courtesy of Mike Woof

Road crashes place an enormous financial burden on the US, in addition to the massive human impact. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that road crashes in the US came with a financial cost of US$340 billion in 2019.

The report is titled, ‘The Economic and Societal Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes, 2019.’ Its shocking revelation is that road crashes in the US during 2019 killed an estimated 36,500 people, injured 4.5 million, and damaged 23 million vehicles. The US has a population of around 328 million, so this represents a loss of approximately $1,035 for each citizen.

“This report drives home just how devastating traffic crashes are for families and the economic burden they place on society,” said Ann Carlson, NHTSA’s Acting Administrator.

Even those not involved in crashes end up paying for around 75% of incidents due to higher insurance costs, taxation, lost time and additional fuel use caused by crash-related delays.

However, the report says that when quality-of-life valuations are considered, the total value of societal harm from motor vehicle crashes in 2019 was nearly $1.4 trillion. The report also looks at the cost of risky driving behaviors that contributed to crashes that led to fatalities, serious injuries and property damage only.

Alcohol-involved crashes resulted in 14,219 fatalities, 497,000 injuries, and $68.9 billion in economic costs in 2019, accounting for 20% of all crash costs.

Crashes involving alcohol levels of .08 BAC or higher are responsible for more than 90% of the economic costs and societal harm from crashes attributable to alcohol use.

Crashes where at least one driver was identified as being distracted resulted in 10,546 fatalities, 1.3 million nonfatal injuries, and $98.2 billion in economic costs in 2019, accounting for about 29% of all crash costs.

Failure to use seatbelts caused 2,400 avoidable fatalities, 46,000 serious injuries, and cost society $11 billion in easily preventable injury-related costs, accounting for about 3% of all crash costs. Seat belt use prevented more than 14,600 fatalities, 450,000 serious injuries, and $93 billion in injury-related economic costs in 2019.

Speed-related crashes are associated with 10,192 fatalities, 498,000 nonfatal injuries, and $46 billion in economic costs in 2019, accounting for 14% of all economic costs. Speed-related crashes cost an average of $141 for every person in the United States.

The report also includes data on the costs associated with motorcycle crashes, failure to wear motorcycle helmets, pedestrian crashes, bicyclist crashes, and numerous different roadway designation crashes.

Nearly 95% of people who die using our US transportation networks are killed on streets, roads and highways. Roadway fatalities and the fatality rate declined consistently for 30 years, but progress has stalled over the last decade and went in the wrong direction in 2020 and 2021. The USDOT’s National Roadway Safety Strategy outlines what the Department is doing to address this crisis.

The report is drawn from sources including NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, Crash Investigation Sampling System and the Crash Report Sampling System. However, the reported also accesses crashes that have not been reported to the police, using consumer survey data and a variety of other sources.

This report comes in the wake of an earlier one from NHTSA showing that driving under the influence of drink or drugs is a massive problem for road safety in the US. The earlier study shows that over 50% of people killed or injured in road crashes were either under the influence of drink or drugs at the time of the incident. The study was carried out at trauma facilities in a range of major cities in the US states of California, Florida, Iowa, Maryland and North Carolina.

Of major concern is that 20% of the people tested had traces of at least two drugs in the system, with one of the most common being THC as found in cannabis.

Since the use of cannabis was legalised in some US states such as California and Colorado, the incidence of road crashes involving drivers under the influence of the drug has also increased. Determining the level of intoxication from cannabis use is more complex than for alcohol use. Drug tests can show that someone has taken cannabis but it is hard to measure the degree to which a person is affected by the drug. Research does show that the effects of intoxication last considerably longer than most people realise and while someone may think they are safe to drive 90 minutes after taking the drug. However, it can be up to four hours before the effects of the drug have diminished sufficiently for it to be safe to drive.