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Gas Prices Changing Driver Behavior?

A new study from the University of Michigan suggests that the decline in traffic deaths nationwide might be more than simply a function of the fact that people are driving less.

Drivers also may be changing their behavior, says Michael Sivak, research professor and head of the Human Factors Division at the university's Transportation Research Institute.

His study finds that numerical declines in gasoline sales and miles driven may not fully account for the reduction in crash fatalities.

The decline in traffic deaths has outpaced the drop in gas sales and number of miles driven since at least last year, Sivak finds. And the change was especially noticeable in early spring.

Nationwide gas sales decreased about 3 percent in March and 1 percent in April and estimated miles driven fell about 4 percent and 2 percent in those months. But motor vehicle deaths declined 22 percent in March and 18 percent in April. (Those were the most recent stats available when he did the study.)

So why would the decline in deaths be outpacing the drop in driving? These are Sivak's suggestions:

-- The reduction in miles driven might have been disproportionately greater for more risky driving conditions. Rural drivers reduced their mileage more than urban drivers. Rural roads are less safe.

-- The amount of driving might have decreased disproportionately for lower-income people, hit hardest by the price of a gallon. Lower income people -- and this includes teens and the elderly) tend to have higher crash rates.

-- People may be driving more slowly to save gas. (This may be partly a function of the decline in driving on rural roads, where speeds tend to be higher.)

Hopeful trend: If the March-April trend line were to continue, Sivak writes, then for 2008, the annual crash fatalities would drop to under 40,000 for the first time since 1961. You can read his full report, with stats and references, as a nine-page pdf file here.

[Join me for an online discussion at 1 p.m. We can talk about all your questions and comments regarding traffic and transit. If you'd like to submit a question or comment in advance, use this link.]

By Robert Thomson  |  August 4, 2008; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Driving  
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I've noticed this quite often on weekends on 95, 270, Beltway, etc. The typical traffic flow seems to have gone from 70+ down to 60-65ish.

Posted by: Joe in SS | August 4, 2008 1:12 PM | Report abuse

What I find amusing is that people complain about gas prices, yet they insist on wasting gas by idling their vehicles (getting ZERO mpg) when they could do otherwise:

--On Wednesday night I was waiting to clear US Customs in Portland, Maine, after taking the ferry from Nova Scotia. It took an hour since there were only three booths open. I turned my car off whenever the queue wasn't moving, and then I'd turn it on, roll forward, and turn it off again. Some people left their cars idling for the full hour! Talk about a waste of gas!

--I routinely see people form queues of four or more cars to use the drive-thru ATM when they could easily park and walk right up to the walk-up ATM with no wait (bonus: you'll be finished sooner, too). Same goes for the drive-thru at fast-food places.

Posted by: Rich | August 4, 2008 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Well, I definitely believe that people are driving slower. As a hybrid owner for almost 3 years now, I have slowed down so that I am somewhere from 10 below to 5 above the speed limit. 2 years ago, I was also the slow car in the right hand lane. Now, there are some other cars that drive at my pace and there are far fewer that burn past me with after burners on.

Unfortunately, I still see about the same amount of completely reckless driving (weaving, tailgating, aggressive driving), but I think the slower speeds are preventing some accidents from happening. But until Starbucks starts putting tranquelizers in their coffees, we're still going to have some of the most violent aggressive drivers in the nation.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | August 7, 2008 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Driving 10 under the speed limit is exactly the reason people have to weave, tailgate, and "aggressively" pass your slow moving, disrupting the flow of traffic, hybrid vehicle. At least you have the courtesy to stay right.

I-66 inside the Beltway in the mornings and afternoons is a slalom course of sub-55 MPH single occupant Priuses. Just makes it more fun for those of us with high performance cars. :)

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