Roger’s post on car crashes a few weeks back got me to thinking:  what are the local car crash trends looking like, in an era of expensive gas?

And as it turns out, the trends are looking good!!  The state of Washington recently released fatality statistics for 2008, and their figures show a sharp dip in fatality rates in the past few years.  As the chart to the right shows, crash fatality rates have been on the decline for decades; but the decline has actually accelerated in the past few years. (Data are here, in table E8, in case you’re interested; and they’re “age adjusted” to compare apples to apples each year.)

The same thing is happening in British Columbia, by the way.  The data I’ve found (click here for an Excel spreadsheet) aren’t directly comparable to Washington’s, and only go back through 1986 and stop in 2007.  But the province has experienced a similar “crash” in car crash risk.

This is all good news:  car crashes have long been the leading killer of people under 40 in this part of the world, and any dip is welcome.  Of course, the time we spend behind the wheel remains some of the riskiest we spend all day—and our total risk goes up for every mile we drive.  But the fact that cars are still dangerous shouldn’t keep us from celebrating a decline in motor vehicle fatalities.

As far as I can tell, there are at least two separate trends in play here.  First, driving is getting safer. And second—measured per person, at least—we’re driving less

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  • Let’s look first at car safety.  Over the years, federal safety standards, coupled with insurance industry pressure, have steadily made our cars safer.  Take a look, for example, at this video of a 2009 Chevy Malibu demolishing a 1959 Chevy Bel Air.

    Note that the Bel Air is actually heavier than the Malibu.  Not by a lot—but still, in this case the lighter car wins.  This shouldn’t all that surprising, really.  As this report (somewhat dated, but still interesting) shows, car design is a better determinant of vehicle safety than weight; heavy SUVs, for example, are no safer for their occupants than a mid-sized sedan.

    For me, the important thing to remember about safety improvements is that the auto industry fought tooth and nail against many safety advances, often claiming that government safety regulations would put them out of business, or restrict consumer choice.  So when you hear the same sort of crocodile tears from the auto industry about efforts to boost fuel economy, to levy carbon taxes, or to institute a carbon cap and trade system, you’ll at least know that there’s a long history of that kind of silliness.

    Second, let’s look at driving trends.  The chart to the left shows that in Washington state, per capita vehicle travel fell by about 8 percent between the middle of 2005 and the end of 2008.  During that stretch, vehicle fatalities in the state fell by about 20 percent.  Although it might seem a stretch to attribute a 20 percent decline in fatalities to an 8 percent drop in per-capita driving, it’s at least somewhat plausible.  As Todd  Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute points out, crash risk tends to accrue by the mile, and because most traffic crashes involve more than one vehicle, every 1% dip in VMT should result in a nearly 2% dip in car crashes.

    There was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth about skyrocketing gas prices a few years back.  That’s understandable:  many families felt like they didn’t have a choice about how much they drove, and rising gas prices really put a squeeze on many household budgets.  But it’s important to remember that, as unpleasant as high gas prices seem, they’ve got a silver lining:  higher gas prices means less driving, and less driving means fewer traffic deaths.  And saving lives has an economic upside; the National Safety Council estimates that each traffic fatality corresponds to about $5.96 milion in costs.  All told, there were 149 fewer traffic deaths in the state 2008 than in 2005—the equivalent of a $900 million boost to Washington’s economy in 2008 alone.

    So what will happen next?  Will crash in car crashes continue?  Or if gas prices stay low, or if the economy picks up, will we see an uptick in both driving and crashes? I’ve got no predictions, really—just a hope that the traffic fatality rate keeps going down, regardless of what happens to driving trends.