How to Make U.S. Traffic Safety Programs More Effective: RAND Study

December 17, 2015

Following a national approach to adopting traffic safety laws is more cost effective than following a state-by-state approach, according to a new RAND Corp. study.

Boosting traffic safety funding by 10 percent and allocating the funds to states where it is most needed would save 1,320 lives and prevent more than 225,000 injuries annually, according to the study. Meanwhile, giving each state a 10 percent funding hike would save 660 lives and prevent more than 46,000 injuries.

If the focus for a theoretical 10 percent boost in funding were on saving the greatest number of lives with a single intervention, then the research suggests implementation of universal motorcycle helmet laws in the 30 states that currently do not have them.

With this one intervention, 745 lives would be saved each year and almost 200,000 injuries prevented at a cost of $41 million. Such a strategy would provide $122 in benefits to society for every $1 spent by the government — a total annual savings of $5 billion.

The findings in the study, “Using Cost-Effectiveness Analysis to Prioritize Spending on Traffic Safety,” come from a tool created by RAND researchers to help federal and state lawmakers make cost-effective decisions to improve traffic safety and public health. Cost effectiveness is based on the benefit of implementing a program or policy, in terms of lives saved and injuries avoided, and how much it costs the state to implement. Among the scenarios researchers chose to examine is a 10 percent increase in funding over what the federal government currently spends.

The direct and indirect costs of lives lost and injuries in motor vehicle accidents are very high. The federal government provides approximately $579 million annually to states for traffic safety programs. However, crash-related costs reached at least $242 billion in 2010, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Using the tool, RAND researchers analyzed the most cost-effective way to spend an additional $57.9 million, or 10 percent, in federal traffic safety funding.

The Motor Vehicle Prioritizing Interventions and Cost Calculator tool is the first of its kind, and allows states to compare cost and effectiveness across various traffic safety interventions, according to Liisa Ecola, lead author of the study and a senior project associate at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

[The free tool is available on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).]

The tool allows policymakers to look at 14 different traffic safety interventions and choose the ones that yield the largest reduction in the number of injuries and deaths for an individual state’s implementation budget. The interventions in the tool include, among others, alcohol ignition interlocks, universal motorcycle helmet laws, license plate impoundment and primary seat belt-use laws.

Researchers note that not all states will benefit equally from a national approach. Some states already have implemented the most cost-effective policies, therefore the funding and the benefits would go to the states where the new policies are put into practice.

Funding for the report was provided by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Other authors of the study are Benjamin Batorsky and Jeanne S. Ringel. Funding for the Motor Vehicle Prioritizing Interventions and Cost Calculator for States tool was provided by the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. The research was conducted by RAND Health, a division of the RAND Corp., and the RAND Infrastructure Resilience and Environmental Policy Program.

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