Traffic is lighter in a bad economy

Robert Reich

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Bob Moon: The U.S. saw a 3.9 percent drop in traffic fatalities since 2006. That's according to the latest report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters credits the decline to safer vehicles and *aggressive law enforcement. But commentator Robert Reich says there's something else at work in these numbers.


Robert Reich: Some good news amid all the bleak economic indicators: Traffic deaths in the United States reached their lowest level in more than a decade last year.

So what are we doing right? Some point to safer cars, but cars on our roads last year weren't all that much safer than they were the year before. Basically they were the same cars, because sales of new cars plummeted.

Some hypothesize that our roads have become safer, but our roads didn't suddenly improve. In fact, too many of America's highways are literally falling apart for lack of adequate maintenance. One major bridge even caved in.

Some think the drop in highway fatalities is due to drivers being more careful -- buckling their seat belts, obeying traffic laws. But here, too, the evidence is weak. Seat belt laws have been in effect in most states for years.

If anything, we're less careful. Many of us behind the wheel are paying less attention to driving and more to chattering on cell phones, fiddling with iPods and Blackberries, and adjusting global positioning devices. And more of us are driving motorcycles, accounting for a growing number of highway deaths.

So what's the explanation? It's the economy, stupid. When the economy tanks, as it began to do last year, fewer people are on the road. It's not just the high gas prices. The same pattern can be seen in other major downturns.

When unemployment rises, fewer people commute to work. When incomes fall, fewer people drive to the malls or to movies and restaurants, because they have less money to spend. And fewer people on the roads mean fewer highway accidents and deaths.

The last time we saw this big a drop in highway deaths was 1991, which was also the last time we experienced this big a plunge in our economy. Highway fatalities rose again in the mid-90's as the economy revived. Given how the economy is now going, 2008 will probably turn out to be among the safest years on record.

Moon: Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

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