What's not to like about lower gas prices? How about the danger that appears to come along with them? As gas prices go down, the number of drivers on the road goes up, which researchers say accounts at least partially for the increase in traffic fatalities in the last six months.
A study by Guangqing Chi, a sociologist at South Dakota State University, found that a 20-cent drop in gas prices in Minnesota is linked to 15 extra deaths in that state in 2014. In Oregon, another study showed traffic fatalities increased 13 percent last year—their highest rate since 2009.
So what's going on?
More crowded roads are only partially to blame, researchers surmise. What also changes when gas is cheaper is how we drive. When gas is expensive, drivers tend to punch the accelerator less, use cruise control and brake only when necessary—all known ways to boost gas mileage. These behaviors also tend to make for safer driving. No sudden moves. Basically, as Time magazine puts it, driving like a grandma.
When it's cheap, drivers accelerate, brake, move in and out of lanes without regard for what it does to the tank. Weaving, stopping suddenly and then accelerating rapidly all take up more gas and make for a less predictable car on the road, which leads to wrecks and also to fatalities.
Not everyone agrees with Chi's analysis, pointing out that higher prices in the '80s and '90s did not translate to more fatalities. Improvements in automobile technology has lowered death rates on the roads, too, no matter what the price of gas.
And new technologies, such as smart phones, could be masking the true correlation between gas prices and traffic deaths. A 2011 study concluded up to a quarter of all traffic deaths were connected to distracted driving and cell phones.