By RAY WILBUR
Capital News Service
LANSING — As the state’s economy grows, so does something else that affects the lives of every resident — the number of traffic crashes. And according to experts, the two are related.
Between 2012 and 2015, Michigan’s total number of crashes increased by about 23,000, according to State Police statistics.
That rise to about 297,000 crashes can be attributed to a number of things, said Carol Flannagan, director of the Center for the Management for Safe and Sustainable Transportation at the University of Michigan.
One of them is a strengthening economy that has younger drivers hit the road more often. And those drivers cause more crashes, she said.
“The people we see who are more sensitive to the economy’s changes are young people aged 16 to 24,” she said. “This group of people has generally less safe driving tendencies and they boost the numbers.”
Young drivers simply drive more when the economy improves because they have more money, creating more chances to crash, she said. When the economy drops, they drive less.
Between 2007 and 2011, the unemployment rates for young people were going up and the economy struggled, according to one of Flannagan’s studies.
During that four-year period, crashes decreased by about 60,000, according to State Police data.
Now those numbers are basically reversed, she said, and the state is seeing the results in its crash statistics.
The price of gas is also a factor in the number of crashes, said Guangqing Chi, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has researched the effects of gas prices on car crashes.
“A $2 drop in gas prices can translate to around 9,000 road fatalities per year in the U.S.,” he said. “The fact is, people simply drive more when prices are low, and those people tend to drive more sporadically.”
Chi referred to the same group of young people that Flannagan did who have a higher sensitivity to the economy and a larger effect on the increase or decrease in crashes.
“Younger people and people who have less disposable income are going to be more aware of prices,” he said. “As those prices go down, they’re going to drive more than someone who has enough money not to care.”
People also tend to drive slower when gas prices are higher to make that costly gas last longer, according to Chi’s study, which was conducted in Minnesota, Mississippi and Alabama.
Those people accelerate slower, drive slower on the highway and brake slower, Chi said. This results in less crashes.
It’s difficult to definitively say one thing is contributing to the higher crash numbers across Michigan, said Kendall Wingrove, senior editor of communications at the State Police. But the economy certainly plays a role.
“The economy has seemingly been going well the last couple years and we’ve watched gas prices go down,” he said. “If gas prices are cheap, people of all ages say maybe we’ll make that extra trip or maybe we’ll go that extra mile.”
Flannagan found that median income dropped about 4 percent in Michigan between 2007 and 2011, resulting in a 2 percent drop in crash fatalities.
Now all of that is turning around and going back the other way, she said.
Crashes are not only becoming more numerous, they’re also more deadly. Annual fatalities increased by 74 since 2011, while the median income has increased by roughly $3,000.
“If the economy is strong, we’re going to see increases in crashes and fatalities,” Flannagan said.
By RAY WILBUR