Traffic safety: Raising spending could save lives and money

If only the stock market saw this kind of investment return — and saved this many lives.

Driving in car
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An estimated 1,320 motor vehicle-related deaths could be prevented each year — and 225,000 injuries avoided — if federal funding for state traffic safety programs was boosted by just 10 percent and spent where it's most needed, according to a study released Monday.

And while those lives saved and reduced numbers of injuries would cost just $56.9 million per year in extra spending, the economic benefits from the reduction in roadway carnage would equal $6.4 billion nationally, according to the analysis by Rand Health, a division of Rand Corp.

"If you want to think about it as a return on investment, that's fairly high," said Liisa Ecola, senior project associate at Rand and lead author of the study.

And the payoff could be even higher, in terms of lives saved and reduced injuries, if more money was spent.

Rand found that a $2.1 billion increase in federal funding to implement 14 different kinds of traffic safety "interventions" in states that don't have them already would save more than 3,900 lives and prevent more than 430,000 injuries annually.

The total economic benefit from that spending would be $14.1 billion, in the form of reduced medical care, emergency services, job and household productivity, insurance administration, legal costs, property damage and other savings.

"Unfortunately, decisions aren't always made based on saving lives alone, so by providing the cost and effectiveness of 14 proven strategies, [the safety calculator] can help states make data-driven decisions that will ultimately save money and lives at the same time." -Erin Sauber-Schatz, leader of transportation safety team, CDC

Even on the lower end, there can be a relatively big payoff. Implementing universal motorcycle helmet laws in the 30 states that don't have them would save 745 lives annually, and reduce injuries by 200,000, Rand found.

That would come at a cost of a $41 million increase in safety funding, but have a financial benefit of $5 billion — or $122 in benefits to society for every $1 spent on the program by the government, Rand found.

Rand's report lays out a number of other scenarios in which the amount of money spent, and types of safety "interventions" implemented used, affect how many motor vehicle-related deaths and injuries are reduced annually. Crash-related costs top $240 billion every year, according to federal authorities.

The report is based on a free motor vehicle safety calculator data tool that Rand created under contract for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The tool — which has the tongue-twisting name of Motor Vehicle Prioritizing Interventions and Cost Calculator for States — is available for anyone to use, for free, on the CDC's website.

Ecola said that state safety officials comprise the site's target audience. Officials, legislators and other state policymakers can use the tool to see how spending on a slew of different interventions, and combinations of different interventions, can play out, and pay out, she said.

"People are usually kind of interested in test-driving it, and seeing if it's really relevant and useful for their state," Ecola said.

Erin Sauber-Schatz, leader of the transportation safety team at CDC's Injury Center, noted that, "Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death in the U.S., killing about 90 people every day."

"This is hard to accept when we have so many proven strategies to prevent crashes and their resulting injuries and deaths," Sauber-Schatz said. "Unfortunately, decisions aren't always made based on saving lives alone, so by providing the cost and effectiveness of 14 proven strategies, [the safety calculator] can help states make data-driven decisions that will ultimately save money and lives at the same time."

The tool originally had 12 different interventions, but two more have been added as of Monday. The interventions include, for example, automated red light and speed camera enforcement, drunk-driving check points and toughening up DUI programs, bicycle helmet and motorcycle helmet laws, tougher seat belt laws and enforcement, and in-person license renewal for older drivers.

Ecola said that "every state has ... different problems" in terms of traffic safety, and that would affect how the calculation for the money they would need to spend, and what kind of financial benefits could be realized from that spending.

"You can imagine, for example, that same states have higher rates of drunk driving," she said.

The study comes as the number of motor vehicle deaths in the United States remains at a level where they have held relatively steady since 2009. The number of such deaths — which had hovered between 40,000 and about 45,000 since 1991 — began dropping off markedly in 2008.

As of 2013, the number of U.S. motor vehicle deaths stood at 32,719.