Benefits of a bad economy

In the economic calamity that’s lingered from the 2008 collapse of the American economy, there’s at least a shard of good: Fewer kids seem to be dying while driving.

The Governors’ Highway Safety Association released a report today showing 16- and 17-year-old deaths while driving increased 19 percent — 38 teens — in the first half of 2012, compared to a year earlier. There was no change in Minnesota.

But overall, there’s still be a trend toward fewer teen deaths in recent years, and although the group says you can’t ever peg these things to a single cause, it’s likely due to the economy.

It has long been known that economic conditions affect fatal crash rates, likely by affecting the amount and type of driving, particularly discretionary driving, and that fatal crashes drop during times of poor economic conditions (Longthorne, Subramanian, & Chen, 2010; Sivak, 2008). Higher gas prices are likely a factor as well. Teenagers and others of lesser means are thought to be most sensitive to deteriorating economic conditions and higher gas prices. The economic downturn may have affected both licensure and the amount of driving among teens, given the costs associated with obtaining a license, including the cost of driver education and license fees, as well as vehicle operating expenses. National licensure data in the United States are too unreliable to indicate trends (Foss, 2013), but Monitoring the Future national surveys conducted annually by the University of Michigan indicate that the proportion of high school seniors who reported that they did not drive during an average week increased gradually from 15% to 22% from 2000 to 2010 (Shults, 2012). A study of age groups 15-24 found that a 10% increase in gas prices reduced fatalities by 3-6%, with the largest reductions among 15- to 17-year-olds (Morrisey & Grabowski, 2011).

The occurrence of a steep economic decline is at least a partial explanation for the overall decreases in fatalities in the 2007-2010 period, especially for drivers younger than age 20. Assuming that teenagers are more affected by economic downturns than are older drivers, one might expect that they also are more affected by upturns in the economy, which could account for some of the bounceback in driver fatalities among the youngest drivers, particularly 16-year-olds.

The notation about the higher price of gasoline leading to fewer teen deaths is a fascinating one. It will be interesting to see if that comes up at the Legislature should a debate over raising the gas tax surface in earnest.

Here’s the full report.