As Gas Prices Plummet, Accidents Rise

Gas pump and money in hand

On a recent cross-country trip, a driver was thrilled to find that he never paid more than $2 a gallon for gas. He said that, as long as prices remained low, he planned to drive more and fly less, even if the drive took all day. And he’s not alone. As gas prices hit their lowest point in nearly six years, more and more Americans are taking to the highways. The unfortunate downside—more drivers leads to more traffic accidents and more traffic fatalities.

Officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have long known that there’s a direct correlation between the price of gas and accident statistics. The last time the average price of gas in the United States was below $2—2009—was also the last high point in traffic fatalities nationally. It’s a simple equation—lower gas prices provide a greater incentive to travel by automobile. The more people on the road, the greater the number of collisions.

The research shows that the news is even worse for younger drivers, particularly motorists in their teens. Most adults who drive do so in significant part for work or family needs. But most younger drivers do so for leisure or for something to do. And older drivers tend to have more disposable income. So when gas prices go up or down, most older drivers don’t see a significant change in their driving habits. They drive because they have to, and are better able to afford higher gas prices. Younger drivers, with less discretionary income, simply don’t have the resources to pay for gas at higher prices, so opt for other activities that don’t involve driving.

According to Guangqing Chi, a sociologist at South Dakota State University, a $2 drop in the price of gas could lead to an additional 9,000 deaths in the United States over a one-year period. Chi has been studying the impact of gas prices on driving habits since 2008, when he noticed that his personal driving time went down when prices skyrocketed. He conducted one study in Minnesota that showed that a 20-cent decrease in gas prices led to an additional 15 traffic fatalities.

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