June 21, 2018

How much are 40,000 lives worth?

Dennis Carver and his wife Lorraine survived the massacre in Las Vegas last October and were enjoying their new lease on life.  End of story? Alas, not quite.

Two weeks after the mass shooting, on October 13th Dennis and his wife were driving south on Avenida De Arboles in Murrieta, California when their Mercedes ran off the road on a curve and crashed into two brick pillars. The vehicle exploded in flames, killing its occupants. They were less than half a mile from home.

Dennis and Lorraine are among some 40,000 people who will die in 2017 from traffic crashes in the U.S. It is as if the population of an entire city, for example, Cedar Falls, Iowa, was wiped off the map. In 2016 37,461 people died on the roads, and the number of deaths is on the rise.

If we asked, “how do you invest your savings?”, your answer would most likely be “wherever I get the highest return, adjusted for risk.” This is obvious to all and yet elusive for the federal government. It does exactly the opposite. The price? Many lost human lives, of which many could be saved.

Compare the numbers of deaths in 2016 in three categories: traffic, crime, and terror. In 2016 there were 37,461 traffic fatalities, 17,250 crime-related deaths, and since 9/11, an average of 6 deaths annually by acts of terrorism.

Vast amounts of money are spent annually on Homeland Security. By our estimate: over $120 billion – $40 billion spent directly by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and $80 billion on Overseas Contingency Operations (once known as the ‘war on terror’) and defense spending. Yet since 9/11, the number of Americans killed by terrorists is minuscule, averaging six per year.

Some might say, bravo! That proves how effective that DHS spending is. But common sense says, the spending is utterly disproportionate to the real threat and, in Afghanistan and Iraq, vastly ineffective.

Consider the death toll from crime. In 2016 there were 17,250 homicides or just 40 percent of the number of deaths in car crashes. Yet spending on crime-related police activities was about $100 billion, and another $80 billion on prisons. Historically, there has been a decline in crime over time, but experts say it is not related primarily to spending on policing.

At the same time, the National Safety Council estimates that 2016 was the deadliest year on U.S. roads since 2007, with over 37,000 deaths from motor vehicle crashes and 4.6 million people (more than the entire population of Los Angeles) injured.

The financial cost to society of these crashes (deaths, injuries and property damage) was $432 billion, up 12 percent from 2015. The human cost – the impact on families and loved ones – was far greater.

So, how much does the Federal Government invest in road safety?   Approximately one percent of spending on crime and less than one percent of spending on terror. Roughly, the rounding error of spending on crime and terror.

This quick analysis leads to the conclusion that government spending is inversely proportional to the benefits accruing from it. In historian Barbara Tuchman’s words, this is a classic march of folly – public policy that harms, rather than improves, our wellbeing, precisely the opposite of ordinary common sense. Government invests to achieve the lowest, not highest, social rate of return. Such fiscal folly is not only wasteful, it costs lives. In the case of car crashes, many of those lives lost are tragically those of young people.  Worldwide, nearly 1.3 million people die in road crashes annually, and 20-50 million are injured or disabled. More than half of those road deaths occur among young adults aged 15-44. In the U.S. car crashes is the main cause of death among those aged 15-29.

Yesterday’s model of policing and lengthy infrastructure changes are no longer the only means to curb this epidemic. Practically every vehicle today generates road data, whether through a navigation app on the smartphone or through connected devices within the vehicle transmitting real-time data. These data insights can be critical, when combined with advanced analytical platforms, to reduce response time to crashes, and to prevent them all together.

Infrastructure investment, the most commonly cited solution for improved traffic safety, is costly, and often too slow. Reconstructing a mile of road can cost between $1 to $5 million. Or, for instance, approximately $16B to reconstruct the entire 6,500 miles of L.A. roadways. Technology and data-driven solutions cost a fraction of that and can be implemented quickly to bring immediate life-saving results. This is not to say that we should stop building roads altogether. Rather, we should challenge our federal government to rethink its investment priorities.

A study by the Rand Corporation found that a 10% increase in federal funding for state traffic safety programs could prevent 1,320 crash deaths and 225,000 injuries. What rate of return is that? According to the Rand study, if we spend $56.9 million more a year on traffic safety, we would get economic benefits from reduced roadway carnage worth $6.4 billion. That is a social return of over 100 times on each dollar invested. Spend a buck. Get $100 in return. Not a bad deal. Why then is it ignored?

Not all is gloom. Innovative cities and states around the U.S. are taking matters into their own hands, deploying innovative solutions to improve mobility in their cities and improve traffic safety. One such state and city is Nevada and Las Vegas, which are turning to startups and innovations in the smart mobility space to look for ways to capitalize on the vast amounts of data coming from our vehicles to improve existing traffic management and traffic safety operations.

Furthermore, the traffic management and the first responder agencies are working hand in hand, using cloud-based technologies to improve communication among the agencies, a key ingredient to improve incident response time. From Jan. 1 to Oct. 9, Nevada has seen a reduction of fatalities from car crashes from 252 to 234, a 7% drop. The ambitious goal? Zero fatalities. Faster response to crashes can save lives.

We cannot turn the clock back to keep Brooke Carver, Dennis and Lorraine’s 20-year-old daughter, from becoming an orphan. However, we can refocus our attention and our resources on where it counts most, to tackle one of our worst, and most ignored epidemics, traffic crashes.

– Noam Maital is CEO of Waycare, a smart mobility startup providing AI driven transportation management solutions for smart cities.

– Professor Shlomo Maital is a senior research fellow at the S. Neaman Institute for National Policy Research, Technion, an Israeli think tank.


Dave Mosher and Skye Gould, “How likely are foreign terrorists to kill Americans? The odds may surprise you”,  Business Insider  Jan. 31, 2017,   http://www.businessinsider.com/death-risk-statistics-terrorism-disease-accidents-2017-1

Kirsten Korosec,   “2016 Was the Deadliest Year on American Roads in Nearly a Decade”,  February 15, 2017, http://fortune.com/2017/02/15/traffic-deadliest-year/

Niall McCarthy, “How Much Do U.S. Cities Spend Every Year On Policing?”, August 7, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2017/08/07/how-much-do-u-s-cities-spend-every-year-on-policing-infographic/#358035a8e7b7

Department of Homeland Security https://www.google.co.il/search?rlz=1C1CAFB_enIL643IL643&q=Department+of+Homeland+SEcurity+budget&oq=Department+of+Homeland+SEcurity+budget&gs_l=psy-ab.3..0l4.4092.9678.0.11388.….0…1.1.64.psy-ab..10.28.3769…35i39k1j0i131k1j0i67k1j0i20k1.d8E_MRbqSfg

Dan Mangan, “Traffic safety: Raising spending could save lives and money”  CNBC  Dec. 14, 2015,  https://www.cnbc.com/2015/12/14/traffic-safety-raising-spending-could-save-lives-and-money.html

J.S. Ringel et al., “Costs and Effectiveness of Interventions to Reduce Motor Vehicle-Related Injuries and Deaths”,  Rand Corporation,  2015 www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/tools/TL100/TL144z1/RAND_TL144z1.pdf

Pew Research Center, ”Public Trust in Government: 1958-2017”  May 3, 2017, http://www.people-press.org/2017/05/03/public-trust-in-government-1958-2017/


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