Calculating the Cost of Saving Lives


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently released a new version of a tool to help people (legislators, law enforcement officials, advocates, etc.) determine what kind of impact various motor vehicle laws and enforcement practices would have on saving lives, and what the overall cost/savings would be.  The tool is called the Motor Vehicle Prioritizing Interventions and Cost Calculator for States—but you can call it MV PICCS (pronounced “picks”) for short.

When you first open the calculator, you see a map of the United States with each state color-coded according to its 2015 vehicle death rate. You can then select a state and select various laws/fines/enforcement options that might reduce motor vehicle fatalities and injuries. You can enter a specific budget, and you can also determine whether to have fees and fines from those interventions rolled back into the cost of implementation.

Then the calculator will show an estimate of how many lives will be saved, how many injuries will be prevented, the cost of enforcement, the fees/fines produced, and the overall cost to the state.

I decided to play around with the calculator a bit. First, I selected my current home: Illinois. Illinois already has a very low vehicle death rate (7.8 per 100,000 people). One thing that really bugs me about Illinois, though, is the lack of a motorcycle helmet law. Of the motorcycles I see on the road, I’d say around 25% have riders with helmets. My small community alone has a few motorcycle deaths each year, and I often wonder how many of those could be prevented with helmets.

So on MV PICCS, I checked the option for motorcycle helmets and the option to use fees and fines to offset costs. I then hit the “run model” button, but I got a message saying that it couldn’t select any interventions given a budget of $0. So I entered a budget of $1,000,000, and it said it couldn’t select any interventions given a budget of $1,000,000.

I decided to keep my $1 million budget, but, in addition to the motorcycle helmet law, I checked “Increased Seat Belt Fine” and “In Person Renewal” (for drivers license renewals of those aged 70 or older). This time it did calculate, and it showed 102 lives saved (42 from helmets, 47 from increased seatbelt fines, and 13 from in-person renewal). The overall cost to the state would be $-3.85 million, meaning the fines and fees would greatly outweigh the implementation costs.

Then I decided to play with Wyoming, the state with the highest vehicle death rate: 24.7 per 100,000 people. For Wyoming, I selected seven interventions (Motorcycle Helmet, License Plate Impoundment, In Person Renewal, Increased Seat Belt Fine, Primary Enforcement Seat Belt Law, Seat Belt Enforcement Campaign, and Sobriety Checkpoints.) I also entered a budget of $1,000,000.

MV PICC calculated 40 lives saved and 2,535 injuries prevented. The overall cost to the state would be $840,000.

(It’s also important to remember that laws and driving practices aren’t the only contributors to vehicle deaths. As we’ve reported before, fatality rates are often higher in rural areas, due in part to increased response time for emergency services. States like Wyoming and Montana could certainly reduce their fatality levels with the enforcement of certain laws, but that won’t change issues like terrain and response times.)

While the calculator was kind of interesting to play around with, and while it might provide a decent cost-benefit analysis for some scenarios, I felt like it was a bit too simplistic. I finally figured out that its estimated cost to Illinois to implement a motorcycle helmet law would be $3.5 million. There would be some additional costs in the first year for sure (to update driver’s handbooks, update websites, publicize the law, update law enforcement), but surely the long-term costs wouldn’t be anywhere near that high. It would be nice to see a 5- or 10-year cost estimate.

I also felt the calculator lacked a lot of important options that play huge roles in motor vehicle deaths. There are no options for enhanced child restraint laws or enforcement. There is no option to lower speed limits. There is no option for implementing/enhancing graduated driver’s license programs for teens. And, perhaps most glaringly, there is no option for enhanced laws or enforcement surrounding distracted driving.

The MV PICCS is a decent starting point, but it’s not all-encompassing. Without having a more comprehensive list of interventions and a longer-term view of costs, I’m not sure how useful the calculator will actually be. For finding quick statistics and getting a general overview, though, I can see how it could be a handy tool.