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As Gas Prices Rise, U.S. Traffic Deaths Fall

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A new study finds that the steep rise in the price of gas may be translating into fewer deaths on America's roads.

A study co-authored by Michael Morrisey of the University of Alabama and David Grabowski of Harvard Medical School found that for each 10 percent rise in gas prices between 1985 and 2006, there was a 2.3 percent decline in vehicular deaths. Young drivers fared even better: for every 10 percent rise in the price at the pump the decline in traffic deaths among drivers ages 15 to 17 has been 6 percent, and for ages 18 to 21, 3.2 percent.

Speaking to the Associated Press, Morrisey noted that the data used in the study only went to 2006, when gas was about $2.50 per gallon. With gas now reaching more than $4 a gallon, he expects a much greater drop in roadway deaths -- perhaps 1,000 fewer fatalities each month.

Morrisey noted that annual U.S. auto deaths now total between 38,000 and 40,000 per year, so a drop of 12,000 deaths would represent a third fewer fatalities annually.

"I think there is some silver lining here in higher gas prices in that we will see a public health gain," Grabowski told the AP.

Morrisey noted that the relation between gas prices and highway deaths can work in the opposite direction, too, with fatalities rising as gas gets cheaper. "When that happens we drive more, we drive bigger cars, we drive faster and fatalities are higher," he said.

One highway safety expert said the findings make sense.

"There are a whole bunch of factors that are influenced by higher gasoline prices -- teenagers don't have as much money, so you have the most risky drivers driving less; people are switching out of the bigger, older more dangerous vehicles, and people also know if they drive slower they're going to save gasoline," Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the nonprofit Cener for Auto Safety, told AP.

The findings were presented last month at a meeting of the American Society of Health Economists in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., last month. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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