WASHINGTON (July 11) - High gas prices could turn out to be a
lifesaver for some drivers. The authors of a new study say gas
prices are causing driving declines that could result in a third
fewer auto deaths annually, with the most dramatic drop likely to
be among teen drivers.
Professors Michael Morrisey of the University of Alabama at
Birmingham and David Grabowski of Harvard Medical School said they
found that for every 10 percent increase in gas prices there was a
2.3 percent decline in auto deaths. For drivers ages 15 to 17, the
decline was 6 percent, and for ages 18 to 21, it was 3.2 percent.
Their study looked at fatalities from 1985 to 2006, when gas
prices reached about $2.50 a gallon. With gas now averaging more
than $4 a gallon, Morrisey said he expects to see much greater drop
- about 1,000 deaths a month.
With annual auto deaths typically ranging from about 38,000 to
40,000 a year, a drop of 12,000 deaths would cut the total by
nearly a third, Morrisey said in an interview with The Associated
"I think there is some silver lining here in higher gas prices
in that we will see a public health gain," Grabowski said. But he
cautioned that their estimate of a decline of 1,000 deaths a month
could be offset somewhat by the shift under way to smaller,
lighter, more fuel-efficient cars and the increase in motorcycle
and scooter driving.
Morrisey said 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.
Morrisey and Grabowski found a nearly identical relationship
between gas prices and auto deaths in an earlier study that covered
1983 to 2000. The studies used auto deaths tabulated by the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which hasn't yet
released figures for 2007.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the nonprofit Center for
Auto Safety, said it makes sense that auto deaths would decline as
driving decreases in response to rising gas prices.
"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."
But Ditlow said 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 great enough to suggest such a
dramatic drop is likely.
The Department of Transportation said last month that Americans
drove 1.4 billion fewer highway miles in April, the sixth month in
a row that driving was down and a historic turnaround after decades
of annual increases in driving.
"We're out there on a limb a little bit," Morrisey
acknowledged, "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 presented their findings to a meeting of
the American Society of Health Economists in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.,
last month. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson