Cheap gas could cause increase in traffic deaths

Researcher Says Dramatic Spike Possible

Americans could pay a high price for cheap gas.

With plummeting gasoline prices across the country, motorists are logging more miles on US roads. That increase in driving means more people will likely die in traffic accidents, and a sharp drop in gas prices may correlate to a historic rise in road deaths.

Guangqing Chi, a sociology professor at South Dakota State University, tells National Public Radiothat a $2-per-gallon decrease in gas prices could lead to an additional 9,000 traffic deaths, though in a conversation with Autoblog, Chi emphasized that is a worst-case scenario.

Should such a projection come to fruition, the spike would be a tremendous blow to long-term efforts to eradicate traffic fatalities. An additional 9,000 deaths would represent a 27.5 percent increase over the 32,719 people who were killed in traffic accidents in 2013, the latest year for which data is available.

A direct relationship between overall economic health and traffic deaths exists, says Russ Rader, spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Researchers have noted deaths rise during booms and decrease during recessions. But the fluctuations have been much smaller, and he says it's unlikely that gas prices alone would have such a pronounced impact.

Traffic fatalities have declined in seven of the past eight years, and the annual number hasn't topped 40,000 since 2007. On a percentage basis, a 27.5 percent increase would be the sharpest annual jump since 1917, when deaths rose by 22.4 percent at the dawn of the automobile era.

It's unclear how many more miles Americans would need to drive as a result of the gas-price plunge to reach the 9,000 figure, but Chi said the projection is based on other factors beyond vehicle miles traveled. His projection stems from previous research he and colleagues conducted that examined the relationship between crash deaths and gas prices in Minnesota and Mississippi.

Among other conclusions, the study noted the consequences would disproportionately affect rural residents and commuters. A spike could also disproportionately affect teenage drivers, who are more likely to alter their driving habits based on gas prices, Chi said. Conversely, drivers ages 25 to 34 could see almost no impact, because they're committed to job responsibilities and family needs.

Gas prices have dramatically fallen from a high national average of $3.70 per gallon, but they haven't fallen by $2 per gallon, at least not yet. The current national average is $2.19 per gallon, according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report.

And the drop may be short-lived. In an exclusive interview with The Detroit News, President Obama said yesterday the bargain prices aren't expected to last.

"The American people should not believe that ... demand for oil by China and India and all these emerging countries is going to stay flat," Obama told the newspaper. "Just demographics tell us demand is going to continue to grow, that over the long term it will grow faster than supply and we have to be smart about our energy policy."

Bad news for drivers who have enjoyed the extra cash in their wallets, but potentially life-saving overall.

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