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What is the Cost?

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Recently, I had to write a “benefits” section for a proposal to develop public safety campaigns to limit texting and driving.

We all know that crashes are bad, but how bad are they?  If we ignore the immense toll of pain and suffering, and we just try to put accidents caused by texting into what economists would call a cost analysis, what would that look like?  The numbers are shocking, even for a small state like good ol’ Kansas.

The National Safety Council currently estimates that distracted driving accounts for about 28% of all crashes nationwide, based on 2008 data.  They also privately admit that this number may be low, because the prevalence of texting and driving was underestimated in their analysis.  But even if we consider that their estimate is accurate, then at least one-quarter of all crashes in Kansas may be directly linked to the use of cellular devices while driving.

In 2009, that would equate to roughly 97 fatalities, almost 5,000 non-fatal injuries, and about 12,000 incidences of property damage only.  Based on National Safety Council estimates for these categories*, this translates into a cost of almost $500 million dollars in 2009.

Cutting Costs

Studies show that laws alone will not  dramatically reduce distracted driving behavior. To accomplish that goal, we need visible and effective public safety campaigns.  What are the potential cost savings? Well, if a safety campaign resulted in just a modest 10% reduction in distracted driving incidents, we could save $50 million dollars annually.

Of course, the National Safety Council estimates are just one set of numbers. A colleague of mine at the Kansas Department of Highway Transportation (KDOT) pointed out that they use more recently updated costs.    He writes, “At KDOT we go by [a] Federal Highway Administration Technical Advisory...which assigns the following costs:

Fatal = $3,391,450;  Disabling Injury = $234,800;  Non-disabling Injury = $47,000;  Possibly Injured = $24,800;  and PDO = $2,600."

Those numbers by the way? They're from 2008, and already three years outdated. When one considers these more accurate cost used by KDOT, the case in favor of distracted driving laws coupled with powerful public service campaigns becomes even stronger.

How much stronger?  Well, when we plug KDOT's numbers into the equation, the cost increase for fatalities alone jumps from $27 million to about $82 million dollars per year. Costly, indeed. And mind you, that's just the economic cost for one, comparatively sparsely populated state.

There's another cost, too-- one that doesn't factor into this particular analysis I'm discussing today-- emotional cost for the families and friends of a victim. What's the emotional cost for the child who spends the rest of his life with painful injuries, or in a wheelchair?

Economists don't trade in those numbers. They-- and I-- will leave that math up to you.

*National Safety Council cost estimates by category:  $1,130,000 per fatality; $61,600 per injury; $7,500 per incidence of property damage.

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