In 1986, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports, more than one out of every four motor vehicles registered in this country was damaged in a crash. This means that 45 million cars, trucks and buses were dented or demolished in highway accidents. In the course of these incidents more than 46,000 persons died, and 3.4 million others were injured. The estimated economic cost of vehicle crashes was $74.2 billion. That's greater than the total value of all the goods and services produced in a year by Argentina, or Denmark, or Norway.
The cost estimates made by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration don't attemptto place any monetary value on pain, suffering or loss of life. Instead they measure direct tangible costs. Property losses, at more than $27 billion, account for the largest share. The next biggest, at nearly $21 billion, is attributed to increased insurance costs. Productivity losses stemming from work time that was lost came to more than $16 billion. Legal and court costs and medical costs both exceeded $4 billion.
Can this terrible toll be cut? Certainly it's clear that there are effective ways to reduce the dangers of crashes and injuries. Even with 46,000 deaths, the fatality rate per vehicle mile traveled has now been brought to an all-time low. Credit for that goes not just to improved roads and better-built cars but also to increased seat-belt use, now mandatory in a growing number of states; to tougher action against drunk drivers, and to lower highway driving speeds. It's clear that compliance with each of these preventive measures can be increased. With tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives at stake, no effort should be spared.