B.C. is reporting a stunning 26 per cent drop in traffic fatalities this year over last, according to the Ministry of Public Safety. The RCMP was quick to take the credit, attributing the “unbelievable” plunge to “strategic enforcement,” which included crackdowns on street racing, seat belt non-compliance and impaired driving. But since none of these strategies is new to 2008, the RCMP’s claim is a bit hard to swallow. The more likely cause for the drop in fatalities is twofold: record-high gas prices, and the dramatic downturn of the B.C. economy in the second half of the year.
No other provinces have yet reported their 2008 statistics. But the Ottawa-based Traffic Injury Research Foundation reports that 25 U.S. states are also showing double-digit decreases in traffic fatalities. Indeed, the decline in B.C.—which, in an Angus Reid poll, led the country in turning to bikes and public transit when gas prices rose—is larger than in any U.S. jurisdiction. The largest decline in the U.S. was in Virginia, which reported a drop in fatalities of 20 per cent.
“Enforcement sounds good if you’re in law enforcement,” but the price of gas is simply a “much more important factor,” says Harvard Medical School’s David Grabowski, who co-authored a series of studies that show substantial decreases in traffic fatalities whenever gas prices go up. He found that the price of gas is such a strong factor, it completely overwhelms the effect of mandatory seat-belt laws, lower blood-alcohol limits, graduated licences for youth, and toughened speed-limit laws.
Other studies have shown that a shrinking economy tends to reduce driving too, particularly recreational trips. The one thing everyone agrees on is that with everything from stocks to employment levels sinking, it’s nice to come across one number that everyone is happy to see plummet.