Study suggests thousands more road deaths when gas prices drop $2 a gallon

American drivers certainly like cheaper gas prices but it may come at the price of more deaths:

South Dakota State University sociology professor Guangqing Chi, who analyzes the relationship between gas prices and road fatalities, calculated what the current prices might mean for fatalities by analyzing traffic and crash data numbers from a Minnesota study he conducted from 1998 to 2007.

“A $2 drop in gasoline price can translate into about 9,000 road fatalities a year in the U.S,” Chi said on NPR’s Morning Edition Tuesday. NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam said his “jaw dropped” when he heard the “scary” number. A more conservative calculation based on Chi’s research translates into 3,000 more road deaths per year, Vedantam said…

Chi’s original Minnesota study — from which he extrapolated the 9,000 road deaths figure — showed that even a 20-cent drop in gas prices was linked to 15 additional road deaths in the state per year.

Chi told The Huffington Post by phone Tuesday that it typically takes almost a year for drivers to adopt new driving habits in response to changes in gas prices. Some analysts have predicted low gas prices will persist for the next six months or so.

Those driverless cars (with solar power and electric cars) can’t get here soon enough. Yet, Chi acknowledges that Americans have already been driving less so it will take some time to see if driving picks up just because gas prices dropped significantly.

Predicting more Thanksgiving traffic due to a closed car-to-plane gap?

One way to predict traffic on the roads at Thanksgiving is to look at the car-to-plane travel gap:

Drivers will make up about 89.5 percent of holiday travelers this year, a gain of 0.1 percentage point from 2013, while air passengers will drop by the same amount to 7.5, forecasts prepared by Englewood, Colorado-based IHS Inc. show. A 0.1 point increase may not seem like a lot, but based on last year’s estimate that 39.6 million people traveled by car for Thanksgiving, that would roughly equate to at least another 40,000 people piling onto America’s highways.

The car-over-plane travel choice is made easier by the fact that airfares aren’t coming down like gasoline pump prices are. While the plunge in oil has driven down wholesale jet fuel prices 17 percent since August, almost matching the 18 percent drop in retail gasoline, airfares have risen 3.4 percent over that time, data compiled by industry groups show…

“Right now the airlines aren’t in the sharing mood,” Rick Seaney, chief executive officer of the Dallas-based travel website, said. “They just went through six years of multi-megamergers and dividing the country up by city with little or no competition, so they’ll pocket whatever difference they may get for a while.”

Gasoline’s drop will save the average U.S. driver about $500 annually, helping boost consumer spending, according to IHS. U.S. auto sales have risen 5.5 percent to 13.7 million in the first 10 months of 2014, on pace to be the strongest in eight years, Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based data provider Autodata Corp. said.

A few thoughts:

1. Having 40,000 more people on the roads at Thanksgiving is going to complicate traffic all across the United States? Spread these people cross hundreds of metropolitan areas and assume they aren’t all leaving at the same time (Wednesday after work) and adding that kind of volume may not matter much at all.

2. The prediction of future traffic is interesting to me. This reminds me of Carmageddon fears, first in Los Angeles (twice) and then in Chicago earlier this year. This seems like the creation of news: get prepared for more Thanksgiving traffic now! It is the kind of fear-based reporting done by many local news outlets about things like weather or traffic, fairly mundane events that occasionally turn out to be horrible.

3. The Carmageddon cases hint at another piece of this prediction: making such claims could change future behavior. If Americans hear that there will be more drivers at Thanksgiving, even just a few of them changing their plans (not driving or changing their departure times) might go a long ways toward relieving the predicted traffic. Perhaps this forecast is all part of some plan to actually reduce Thanksgiving traffic?

4. Just from personal observation: plane tickets appear to be really high during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s this year. As the article notes, airlines are looking to make money and haven’t budged much in their prices even with the recent gas price drops.



Gas prices go down, SUVs and Hummers return. Could the same idea hold for McMansions?

SUV sales have picked up in recent months as gas prices dropped across the United States:

Over the last month, auto analysts say, consumers have shown a fresh interest in the kind of SUVs — Hummers, Lincoln Navigators, Ford Explorers — that typified America’s bigger-is-better mindset of twenty years ago. The new mindset among some car buyers is one of the most unexpected consequences of a domestic oil boom that has helped cause global crude prices to plummet in recent months, with the cost of a gallon of gas now below $3.

As oil prices hit a three-year low, Americans are starting to see price changes that could ultimately influence everything from their grocery shopping to their heating bills to their travel. The lower prices — should they be sustained, as expected, for the next few months — have the potential to nudge the U.S. further away from its dreary post-recession mindset, leaving instead a nation with more affordable air and road transportation options, higher consumer confidence, and yes, a few more gas guzzlers driving around…

One measure is the share of “trucks” — including pick-ups, SUVs and crossovers — among total vehicles sold. Before the financial crisis, trucks almost always outsold cars, in some months grabbing as much as 59 percent of the market. Post-recession, the industry has flip-flopped; cars are more popular.

But not in recent months. In September, the truck market share was 53.5 percent. In October, it was 53.6. That is the best sustained two-month stretch since 2005.

As for those Hummers? said interest in Hummer H1s on its site rose 11 percent last month, making it the fastest-growing older model among all vehicles.

As gas prices drop, Americans are returning to some of their consumption patterns from the late 1990s and early 2000s when the economy was doing better. Even though they have seen higher gas prices (which could return soon), gone through a great recession, and government regulations encourage more MPGs across all vehicles in the coming years, some Americans want bigger vehicles that require more gas.

This is interesting in itself but I wonder if the same general concept could apply to McMansions. One argument about reducing purchases of SUVs and McMansions, often paired symbols of excessive consumption, is that Americans needed to be shocked by high gas prices and hard economic times before they would change their behavior. Yet, the recent data about gas prices suggests Americans might just return to their spending patterns once things look better. (And, with the gas prices, it is not like they are likely returning to the $1.20-$2.00 range of not that long ago.) Might the same apply to McMansions? Even with all the fanfare about smaller homes, more reasonable debt loads (whether through mortgages or car loans), and critiques of the kind of sprawling communities in which communities are often built, will Americans return to McMansions once the economy picks up?

I, for one, wouldn’t be surprised. Even during the recession, people with money continued to purchase and build large homes. Homes do require a larger financial commitment than SUVs but they also are highly symbolic and linked to suburbs, all dealing with the American Dream. Perhaps the best hope for fighting these consumerist impulses is pervasive generational shifts, particularly kids, teenagers, and young adults who don’t want cars and suburban houses in the same way over time.

Correlation found between less decline in sustainable city transportation and wealth, required state planning

A new study suggests sustainable city transportation declined less in the last three decades in cities based on two factors: wealthier populations as well as cities located in states that require certain planning measures.

Overall, transportation has become less sustainable across the country over this period, but some communities have slowed the decline more effectively than others.
Among the best at slowing that decline were Seattle, Las Vegas and even Los Angeles, which owes its success to fewer-than-average solo commuters and relatively high public transit use, the research suggests. In contrast, transportation sustainability declined more quickly than average over those years in such cities as Pittsburgh and New Orleans…
“The findings suggest that planning efforts are worthwhile, and that higher real per-capita income enhances the benefits of community planning, possibly through better implementation,” said McCreery, also a lecturer in sociology at Ohio State.

Could be an interesting story but I wonder if this isn’t simply masking the bigger picture: transportation sustainability is down across the board. Here is the reason why:

“Almost every city has declined in transportation ecoefficiency because we have become more automobile dependent and more spread out so people tend to have to drive farther,” said McCreery, author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in Ohio State’s Mershon Center for International Security Studies.

People can talk about becoming gas independent to help deal with issues like high gas prices but focusing on sustainable transportation might lead in another direction: planning in such a way that people don’t have to drive as much to start with. Even though rising gas prices may lead to less driving, we still have a lot of communities that require certain amounts of driving. But, this is probably a harder sell or issue to deal with given the American love of cars, space, and local government…