High unemployment may save lives by keeping lousy drivers off the road

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Economic recessions have upsides: In fact, rising unemployment may actually save thousands of lives, according to a new paper that will be published in a forthcoming issue of Journal of Risk and Uncertainty.

Researchers have known for a while that declining economic activity means that fewer people get behind the wheel, which, in turn, makes driving safer. 

But, as it turns out, economic recessions may keep bad drivers in particular off the road — making the impact on road safety even bigger than previously thought. The study authors estimated that a one-percentage point uptick in unemployment could save up to 5,000 lives in the United States annually.

The authors, economists Vikram Maheshri of the University of Houston and Clifford Winston of the Brookings Institution, looked at data from insurance company State Farm, which installed meters in nearly 18,000 vehicles whose owners had agreed to remote tracking in exchange for lower rates. 

A strong economy makes bad drivers hit the road more, bolstering the argument for driverless cars. Source: Jared Wickerham/AP
A strong economy makes bad drivers hit the road more, bolstering the argument for driverless cars.  Jared Wickerham/AP

There were a few caveats to the study findings: For one, the State Farm data could show the correlations between unemployment and safety only en masse — not whether a given unsafe driver was employed, for example.

Plus, the drivers' age and geography, limited to Ohio, may have skewed the data, the researchers acknowledged.

"The sample's main drawback is that middle-aged (and thus arguably safer) drivers are over-represented, while younger and arguably more dangerous drivers are under-represented," Maheshri and Winston wrote. 

Nevertheless, the economists argued that their data makes a powerful case for driverless cars, which could reduce accidents and fatalities. They urged policymakers to incentivize older or reckless drivers to use autonomous vehicles instead of operating cars on their own.

In addition to saving human lives, technology to help bad drivers could reduce traffic and the costs of repairing vehicles after accidents, the economists wrote.

This month, Uber announced it would be rolling out autonomous cars in Pittsburgh in the coming weeks. Over in Singapore, a startup launched by two MIT researchers has already began testing a driverless taxi program — though a sort of backup driver will still sit up front in case anything goes wrong.

Yet there are still a number of safety and technical issues driverless car manufacturers will need to work out.

Back in March, Duke University's leading roboticist testified in a Senate hearing that driverless cars are still vulnerable to hackers and bad weather — and aren't able to respond to instructions from police.