Traffic crash fatalities were expected to exceed 40,000 in the United States in 2015, for the first time since 2007. A number of factors may explain the increase, one of which is the economy.

Spending was down nationwide, during a recession that began in December 2007. Although it officially ended in June 2009, many people continued to suffer the effects of a sluggish economy for years, after being unemployed, losing equity in their homes, and losing investment funds. But in 2015, the economy began to rebound, and people began buying new cars and taking road trips.

The relationship between the economy and car crashes is circular: A better economy means more cars on the road, traveling greater distances. That increase in traffic is associated with a higher number of crashes, and the number of brand-new cars on the road results in larger insurance payouts for damages. When crashes and associated costs increase, those expenses are in one way or another passed on to consumers. Suddenly, Americans who have finally regained their financial footing find they’re paying a larger portion of their income for car insurance.

In May 2015, Geico announced that it would raise its rates, due to an increase in the frequency and severity of claims. In November 2015, Allstate raised its rates to offset an increase in claims – people with Allstate insurance policies saw an average increase of 3.4 percent, rates increased by about 4.1 percent for Allstate’s Esurance brand, and Emcompass customers’ rates increased by 7.4 percent.

For drivers who have never had a traffic ticket or crash, paying more in premiums because of other drivers may seem like a raw deal. And higher premiums aren’t the only expenses passed on to the public when crashes increase.

The Cost to Taxpayers

A traffic accident involves more than just the drivers and their vehicles. Fire departments, police officers, and emergency medical personnel may be the first responders at the scene of the crash, and all of those people are “on the clock,” with public safety employees paid with taxpayer revenue or other government funds.

Investigators may have to spend considerable time at the scene, determining the cause of a crash, and in some cases, make an arrest. Housing an inmate in a local jail could cost taxpayers a few hundred dollars per day – aside from covering the inmate’s basic needs, taxpayers also foot the bill for administrators, support staff, laundry services and other costs.

In 2010, traffic crashes cost every individual in the U.S. about $784, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. That’s more than $3,000 for a family of four.

The NHTSA’s report, The Economical and Societal Impact of Motor Vehicles, explained that crashes cause other, less-obvious causes. For example, a wreck that shuts down a highway during morning rush hour means everyone stuck in the traffic jam is burning gasoline without actually going anywhere. Hundreds of people may arrive late to work, which in turn could cost companies money in lost productivity, or time spent rescheduling meetings.

When a person is injured in a crash to the extent that he can’t work, companies may be losing even more productivity, and paying at least a portion of the injured person’s salary while he’s on medical leave.

The NHTSA reports that in 2010, traffic crashes killed 32,999 people and injured 3.9 million, and caused damage to more than 24 million vehicles. Public revenue paid for roughly 7 percent of the associated $242 billion in crash costs.

According to Newsweek, in the first six months of 2015, crash costs had already reached $152 billion. Traffic fatalities were up 14 percent, compared to the first six months of 2014, with injury rates 30 percent higher than the year before.

Some people suspect that a reasonably healthy economy and more drivers on the road couldn’t be the only reason serious and fatal crashes increased in 2015. Warren Buffet, the billionaire CEO of Geico’s parent company Berkshire Hathaway, said texting while driving surely had a role in the large number of crashes.

Cellphones and Crashes

The National Safety Council estimates that cellphone usage is a factor in roughly 27 percent of crashes; however, because of inconsistencies in the way accidents are reported, the actual percentage of cellphone-related crashes could be much higher.

The NSC publication, Crashes Involving Cell Phones: Challenges of Collecting and Reporting Reliable Crash Data provides some evidence that cellphone-related crashes may be underreported. In one instance, a 17-year-old girl was talking on her cellphone when she lost control of her car and crashed. She died at the hospital a few hours later. The friend she had been talking to at the time told the girl’s parents that their daughter’s last words acknowledged that a crash was imminent, yet cellphone use wasn’t mentioned in the crash report.

When police investigate a crash, they may see cellphone use as a less meaningful cause than some other action – such as speeding, or driving while intoxicated. As a result, cellphone use may not be mentioned in a police report. Furthermore, some official causes, such as “failure to keep in proper lane,” don’t account for the reasons behind that action, which could be that a driver was talking, texting, or surfing the Internet on her phone.

In attempting to gauge how many crashes involve cellphone use, the NSC reviewed fatal crashes in which police reports didn’t indicate cellphone use, but other reliable evidence suggested cellphone use was a factor. That evidence included testimony from other people who had been texting with or talking to a driver, passenger testimony, wireless service provider records, and other types of testimony from civil or criminal court cases.

The NSC found large discrepancies between their own conclusions and the official causes of crashes. It also found per-capita cellphone-related crash rates in the most populous states seemed abnormally low, suggesting that different methods of recording accidents and/or reporting data could differ dramatically from state to state.

Cellphone Usage and Attitudes

In 2011, only 35 percent of Americans owned smartphones. By 2014, 58 percent of Americans owned smartphones, and in 2015, that number increased to 64 percent. While there’s no direct connection between the increase in the number of smartphone owners and crashes, these statistics definitely merit further investigation.

In May 2015, AT&T published its Smartphone Use Behind the Wheel Survey. Investigators talked to 2,067 people, all smartphone owners between the ages of 16 and 65 who used their phones at least once a day and drove at least once a day. Investigators asked a number of questions about how respondents used their phones while driving, and asked them whether their behavior constituted “actively engaging,” or “glancing at.”

Results of the survey revealed:

  • 61 percent of respondents said they had responded to or sent text messages while driving; 43 percent labeled their behavior as “engaging in,” and 59 percent said they had been “glancing at.”
  • 162 people reported posting to Twitter while driving, and of those people, 30 percent said they do it “all the time;” of the 200 people who said they watched YouTube videos while driving, 22 percent did it all the time.
  • 38 percent of respondents reported actively engaging in some type of social media while driving, such as posting on Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest.
  • Of people who reported actively engaging in one of the usage activities, between 20 and 30 percent believed that activity could be performed safely while driving.

It seems there’s a serious disconnect between what drivers know and what they do. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 79 percent of drivers say texting is a serious threat to safety, yet more than a quarter of them admit to doing it.

The Role of Economics

Interestingly, the increase in the number of smartphone owners may, like car crashes, have some connection to the economy. A new smartphone can cost several hundred dollars – not an expense many people are willing to incorporate into their budgets during a recession. Cellphone data plans can be quite expensive, too.

Most new vehicles contain infotainment systems that allow drivers to connect their phones to their vehicles, play music, follow GPS navigation, and perform other computer-assisted tasks. This new technology may, at first, seem safe, because it allows drivers to use their phones hands-free. But the mental distractions posed by these systems could be creating a new kind of danger on the roads.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety conducted a study of infotainment system usage in 10 vehicles, and found that systems that were overly complex or poorly designed impaired concentration significantly. They also found distraction lingers up to 27 seconds after the task that caused the distraction, which means drivers could miss important visual cues while driving.

It’s ironic that the best mobile devices money can buy, and the newest vehicles with state-of-the art onboard computers, may actually be creating some profound safety risks for drivers. At the Louthian Law Firm, we hope that 2015 will stand out as an anomaly and the number of crashes will decrease in the coming years, but because that seems an unlikely scenario we stand ready to help in times of trouble.