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The link between the decline in traffic deaths and the price you pay for auto insurance

Drivers face many dangers – distracted motorists, bad roads and bad weather, to name a few – but 2011 likely was the safest one in history to be on U.S. roads.

Traffic deaths hit a record low in 2011, with the fewest since the federal government began tracking them in 1949, according to a preliminary estimate from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). About 32,310 people died in auto accidents in 2011 – a decline of 1.7 percent from the previous year – according to a NHTSA statistical summary released in May 2012. Final numbers won't be available until later in 2012.

Experts say the traffic fatality rate – measured the number of deaths by miles driven – has been declining for decades for various reasons, including safer roads and vehicles. However, they say, the low death numbers for 2011 can be attributed, in part, to fewer miles driven – a decrease of 2.1 percent from 2010, according to NHTSA.

“The big thing that has driven down the number of traffic deaths in the last few years is the economy,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

traffic deaths “It is often the optional driving that falls off during a recession, and that tends to be the riskiest kind of driving,” Rader says. “Going to the bars on the weekends, driving to a tailgate party or driving across the state to see a friend tend to be much riskier driving than, for example, commuting to work.”

Jacob Nelson, director of traffic safety, advocacy and research for AAA, says other factors, such as stepped-up safety measures, have played a role as well. “We don’t know how much of an impact the economy has had on traffic safety versus safer roads, vehicles and drivers,” he says.

Effects on car insurance

Does the dip in traffic deaths mean drivers should expect to get a price break on auto insurance? Experts say the way premiums are set is complicated and varies by company, but fatality rates are part of the equation.

The decrease in traffic deaths does affect on car insurance premiums, "but the more important thing is that the claims frequency has dropped,” says Robert Hunter, director of insurance at the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America. “There are a lot of reasons why accidents are down and claims are down – the economy, people driving less and high gas prices all cause people to take more mass transit and walk to the store.”

The two biggest factors affecting auto insurance premiums are claim frequency and the average dollar amount per claim, according to Hunter.

“Those two things drive price the most,” says Hunter, noting that rising medical costs play a big role in car insurance rates. “Deaths are a serious result of an accident that can cost a lot of money, but not as much as if somebody were injured for a long period of time."

So, what do the lower 2011 traffic death numbers mean for future auto insurance rates?

“Insurance rates are based on many factors – they don’t go up or down because of one factor,” says Jeanne Salvatore, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. “They’re based on all the things insurance pays for – the number of accidents that translate into claims, medical bills, general costs, litigation. All those things go into what you pay for insurance.”

Safer roads, cars and drivers

The actual number of traffic deaths hit a low in 2011 partly because of less driving, but the fatality rate – the number of deaths by miles driven – also appears to have dropped to the lowest on record: about 1.09 fatalities per 100 million miles, down from 1.11 the previous year.

“There’s a long-term trend, when you look at the death rate measured by miles traveled, that has been going down since the 1950s,” Rader says.

AAA’s Nelson attributes this trend to safer roads, safer vehicles and safer drivers.

Nelson says many state transportation departments have been working for decades to improve traffic safety with such things as guardrails as well as rumble strips and rumble stripes, which cause noise and vibration to prevent vehicles from veering across a center line into oncoming traffic or veering off the road. These tools "reduce the risk of a crash and reduce the severity of a crash if it happens,” Nelson says.

Improved vehicle safety also has helped, Rader says. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety assigns safety ratings to cars based on its own crash tests.

“Over time, vehicles have become more crash-worthy,” he says. “Now, almost 120 vehicles earn good ratings in all (institute) tests, and six years ago there were only about a dozen, and the crash tests have gotten more stringent over that time.”

Also, crash-avoidance technology should make driving even safer in the future, experts say. For example, drivers who use Volvo’s City Safety system, which can prevent low-speed crashes with automatic braking, file 30 percent fewer at-fault insurance claims than drivers of similar vehicles that aren't equipped with that system, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Looking ahead, Rader expects a continued drop in the U.S. traffic death rate.

“What’s on the horizon is a lot of exciting technology that may help drivers avoid many kinds of crashes altogether,” Rader says. “We have much safer vehicles that are allowing more people to walk away from serious crashes, but technology has the promise to prevent a lot of those crashes from happening in the first place.”

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