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Can driverless cars stem crash costs of $871B a year in economic loss, societal harm?

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With the recent news that Google may be embarking on a quest to make its driverless cars accessible to the public, many pundits were worried about what this would do to the current car industry and traffic law enforcement.

Will such cars destroy local law enforcement efforts to collect money through fines? Will they destroy the local and established auto industries? Are they even safe to ride around in, being so small and compact? Will the economy take a hit if they replace existing vehicles and economies?

All these questions are valid and are popping up all over the place in reports and analysis of Google Car vehicles.

One thing the driverless cars are known for is safety. They have outperformed human drivers in virtually every test run that's been embarked upon. These cars generally do not crash or have accidents, nor have they had any traffic tickets to date. To compare the cost savings these cars would have on the economy -- ranging from the auto industry having to replace cars to insurance claims -- lets analyze the economic cost of crashes in a calendar year.

A new study released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has calculated that vehicle crashes accounted for a total of $871 billion in economic loss and societal harm during 2010 when quality of life is factored into the equation. Lost market and household productivity accounted for $93 billion of the total $277 billion economic costs of motor vehicle crashes, while property damage accounted for $76 billion. 

First note the human costs: the death count in 2010 was 32,999 fatalities; 3.9 million nonfatal injuries; and 24 million vehicles damaged or totaled.

Alcohol accounted for many of the reasons behind the crashes. Alcohol-involved crashes accounted for $59 billion or 21 percent of all economic costs, and 84 percent of these costs occurred in crashes where a driver or nonoccupant had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 grams per deciliter or greater.

"Alcohol was the cause of the crash in roughly 82 percent of these cases, causing $49 billion in costs," the study reads.

Crashes in which alcohol levels show a BAC of .08 or higher are responsible for over 90 percent of the economic costs and societal harm that occurs in crashes attributable to alcohol use, it states.

Keep in mind that there are many lobby groups and economies that do not want crashes to disappear. Their whole business thrives on setting up insurance claims, replacement vehicles and many other things associated with the car crash phenomenon. Just as law enforcement may not want to give out fewer traffic tickets during the day, for that is what keeps them occupied and employed.

Despite these economic considerations, the biggest thing that driverless cars can help to prevent that no company or insurance claim can replace is the loss of lives. While that doesn't mean these cars aren't carrying passengers and there still might be injuries, the overall safety records should improve.

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