By James Baxter, NMA President
A little background: The AAA was once known as the American Automobile Association. In the first half of the 20th century it was the pre-eminent spokesman and advocate of American motorists.
The American Automobile Association championed more and better roads, rational traffic laws and fair enforcement. It even identified and campaigned against speed traps. Not remembered by many; it was the principle sanctioning body for auto races.
By the 1960’s the American Automobile Association was well into its transition from motorist advocate to insurance company.
The association had a long history with roadside assistance, a type of insurance, but not until the 60’s and 70’s did the insurance function begin to dominate its priorities. The insurance role evolved to total control in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Eventually the facade of being a motorist advocacy organization collapsed and the name was changed to “AAA,” the letters meaning whatever the observer assumed them to mean. In the era when AAA was championing the 55 MPH speed limit (like all other insurance companies) the interpretations were not complimentary.
That, abruptly, brings us to the AAA press release that hit the media yesterday. I should add, there are still a fair number of reporters and other media mavens that have not caught on to the fact that the AAA is not the American Automobile Association of old.
The press release claims that auto accidents are costing we naïve citizens a lot more money than is traffic congestion and yet the government seems much more focused on traffic congestion than it is on traffic safety. This is one of those instances where because they said it, it must be true.
In reality, it’s unvarnished nonsense.
First, the claim that auto accidents are costing society more money than congestion is based on “funny money” assumptions, made up costs, and “apples and oranges” comparisons.
Assumptions on the value of one person’s life, work place losses, and monetizing “quality of life” or “pain and suffering” are futile subjective exercises intended to prove a point, not to shed light.
Yes, there are 43,000 annual traffic related fatalities, but why not mention that the fatality rate, a more meaningful statistic, has dropped like a stone over the past three decades?
Simple. Positive news doesn’t support the insurance industry’s agenda.
Assuming that 75 percent of the population lives in urban/suburban/developed regions means that 225 million people, including 150 million drivers deal with some level of congestion on a daily basis. If it costs each person an hour each work day that’s 58 billion man hours lost to congestion. OK, only a half hour; 29 billion man hours a year. At $7 per hour that’s $203 billion dollars a year and we haven’t even started with “quality of life” or workplace losses.
If these seem like silly numbers to you I’d argue that they aren’t any sillier than saying every life lost in an auto accident cost $3,249,192.00 (they apparently rounded off the cents).
Barbara Harsha, Exec. Dir. of the Governors Highway Safety Association unintentionally stated a fact; “Traffic Accidents happen in ones and twos, and people see them as random events that don’t effect them.” Actually “the people” have it about right. For most of them, traffic accidents are random events that do not affect them in a significant manner if they are not directly involved in the accident, which is usually the case. Yes, there are auto insurance rates, but those rates largely track inflation and are driven by administrative costs and property damage claims.
Besides, when is the last time you heard about an auto insurance company being unprofitable?
Congestion is not a random event; motorists confront it almost every day they travel. It costs them time, makes them late, aggravates and irritates (probably causes plenty of heart attacks and strokes), increases fuel consumption, emissions, and vehicle wear and tear, and it causes accidents. It stands to reason that funds garnered by taxing motorists should be used to improve roadways and lessen congestion.
Suggesting that safety has been shorted resources or given a low priority is sheer political nonsense.
No single government action has done more to improve highway safety than the construction and the expansion of the Interstate System. Without these and similar limited access divided highways we would experience twice as many fatalities, if not more, than we do today.
The vast preponderance of traffic accidents are not caused by speeding, impairment, senior drivers, or being young. They are caused by distraction, inattention, and fatigue.
Passing more laws, heaping on more penalties, or hiring platoons of cops will not address these factors.
If the resources that are wasted on speed traps, ticket cameras, roadblocks, enforcement binges, and propaganda, like this study, were invested in real research, programs, and projects that addressed the real causes of most traffic accidents we might just be able to make progress toward safer AND less congested highways.