Traffic crashes vs. congestion: Which costs more?

Sitting in traffic is no fun. But when compared with getting into a crash, it’s the cheaper option – by far.

Traffic crashes cost society $299.5 billion a year, which amounts to an annual cost of $1,522 per person, according to a study released in November 2011 by AAA. Congestion, while a common gripe among motorists, sets society back just $97.7 billion a year, which amounts to $590 per person each year.

For the study, the costs of crashes were based on the Federal Highway Administration’s tallies for traffic deaths and injuries. The federal agency placed a value on 11 items, including property damage, lost earnings, medical costs, legal costs and lost quality of life.

traffic crashes and congestion

Measured in 2009 dollars, the cost of a single traffic death came to $6 million. The study estimated the cost of a traffic injury at $126,000. These figures were compared with traffic congestion costs -- including fuel costs and lost time -- computed by the Texas Transportation Institute in its Urban Mobility Report.

“Although we have seen a decline in the number of traffic fatalities in recent years, our work is far from over,” says Angie LaPlant, a spokeswoman for AAA Auto Club South. “Continued progress is needed to provide the necessary and sustained investments that lead to better and safer roads.”

Auto insurance and car crashes

According to the AAA study, crashes on less congested roadways appear to result in less frequent, but more severe, crashes. On more congested highways, while the number of crashes tends to increase, the severity of each wreck decreases.

The number of crashes in your area can affect not only how you drive, but also what you’ll pay for auto insurance. When setting premiums, insurance companies look at the number of crashes in your Zip code or county to assess the risks involved.

“Accident frequency in an area can cause the base rate for auto insurance to increase or be higher than an area with a low-accident frequency,” LaPlant says.

How your vehicle will hold up in a crash also helps determine your auto insurance premium.

“A main component of insurance premiums for a vehicle involves the likelihood that the vehicle will be involved in a crash and what the cost for the crash will be,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Your insurance company will look at the type of car your drive, as well as statistics related to the costs of crashes for that model when setting auto insurance rates.

Safety tips

When it comes to auto insurance premiums, the area you live in and the car you drive are just two factors that will affect the price. The amount of coverage you want, your age and your driving record also will be taken into account.

While you can’t change your age, there are many steps you can take to keep your driving record as clean as possible. Follow these guidelines to stay safe while on the road:

1. Get a good start. Before you get behind the wheel of a car, familiarize yourself with the vehicle’s features, LaPlant says. Secure items that could shift around while the car is moving, such as briefcases, purses, toys and phones. Check your map or GPS before rolling down the road.

2. Stay focused. Avoid smoking, drinking, eating and reading while driving, LaPlant says. If you need to do an activity that will be distracting, such as attending to children, making a call or sending a text, ask a passenger for help; otherwise, pull over to the side of the road.

3. Make safety a priority. When shopping for a car, look for a crashworthy vehicle, Rader says. To find cars that rank well when it comes to crash prevention and protection, check the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Top Safety Picks. “To be a top safety pick, the vehicle has to earn top crash ratings for protecting people when there is a crash, and it has to have electronic stability control, a key feature in preventing many kinds of crashes,” Rader says.

Steering clear of traffic congestion

The days of “rush hour” are gone, says David Schrank, co-author of the Urban Mobility Report. “Now it’s rush hours – with an ‘s.’” In some areas, rush "hour" can last six hours or more. While congestion often is considered a big-city problem, Schrank notes that it has grown worse in areas of every size during the past several years.

To avoid congestion, and the fuel and time costs that go along with it, follow these three steps:

1. Look into flex time. Many jobs allow flexible hours or even telecommuting, Schrank says. You may be able to change your work hours to avoid the rush or, better yet, stay home and miss it entirely.

2. Take alternate routes. Before heading out, check to see whether there's a delay along your planned route. If there is, make a detour.

3. Explore other options. It may be more comfortable to ride to work in your car, but if your city offers an efficient public transportation system, you could save time -- and aggravation -- by taking the subway, train or bus.

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