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Status Report, Vol. 37, No. 7 | August 17, 2002 Subscribe

Cost of crashes has increased dramatically, NHTSA reports

Motor vehicle crashes cost the United States a total of $230.6 billion in 2000, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concludes. This sum, which is 50 percent higher than NHTSA's last estimate in 1996, reflects the lifetime economic costs of 41,821 deaths, 5.5 million nonfatal injuries, and 28 million damaged vehicles.

The biggest costs were lost wages and productivity, property damage, and medical care for injuries. Combined, these accounted for two-thirds of the $230.6 billion costs. Lost productivity cost $61 billion (26 percent), property damage $59 billion (26 percent), and medical expenses $32.6 billion (14 percent). Other costs were travel delays, legal and court fees, insurance administration, and emergency services.

Safety belts saved $50 billion in costs by preventing 11,900 deaths and 325,000 serious injuries. Still, the unnecessary costs resulting from people not using their belts came to $26 billion. According to NHTSA, more than 9,200 lives could have been saved and 143,000 injuries prevented if the unbelted occupants had buckled up.

The people directly involved in the crashes paid only 25 percent of the costs. Society picked up the rest — about $170 billion — through insurance premiums, taxes, and travel delays. All told, crashes cost roughly $820 for every person in the United States. The total cost amounts to 2.3 percent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product.

For perspective on the huge costs of crashes, consider what other major health problems cost the nation. Heart disease and cancer are the two leading causes of death in the United States. According to the National Institutes of Health, the total economic cost of heart disease in 2000 was $214.7 billion, including all health expenditures and lost productivity. The cost of cancer in the same year is estimated at $180 billion.

So motor vehicle crashes are as much of a drain on the economy, if not more so, as heart disease or cancer. Yet when it comes to federal research dollars, highway safety continues to get far less attention. President Bush's budget request for 2003 includes $5.1 billion for research at the National Cancer Institute compared with $205 million (about 4 percent as much) for NHTSA's research and operations programs.

Who pays the societal costs of crashes?

By source of payment (millions of dollars), 2000
Federal State Insurer Other Self Total
Medical 4,698 3,187 17,893 2,075 4,769 $32,622
Emergency services 56 1,100 214 25 57 $1,453
Market productivity 9,881 1,866
25,061 945 23,238 $60,991
Household productivity

8,280 312 11,559 $20,151
Insurance administration 135 77 14,955 $15,167
Workplace costs 4,472 $4,472
Legal/courts 11,118 $11,118
Travel delay
25,560 $25,560
Property damage 38,373 20,663 $59,036
Total $14,769 $6,231 $115,894 $33,388 $60,285 $230,568
Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

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