The Positive Effects of a Higher Alcohol Tax

Philip J. Cook and Christine Piette Durrance have published a working paper called "The Virtuous Tax:  Lifesaving and Crime-Prevention Effects of the 1991 Federal Alcohol-Tax Increase." It makes a substantial argument for the upside of higher alcohol taxes:

On January 1, 1991, the federal excise tax on beer doubled, and the tax rates on wine and liquor increased as well. ... We demonstrate that the relative importance of drinking in traffic fatalities is closely tied to per capita alcohol consumption across states.  As a result, we expect that the proportional effects of the federal tax increase on traffic fatalities would be positively correlated with per capita consumption. 

The Perils of Drunk Walking: A New Marketplace Podcast

In our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast, Stephen Dubner looks at why the first decision you make in 2012 can be riskier than you think. (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.)

The risks of driving drunk are well-established; it's an incredibly dangerous thing to do, and produces massive collateral damage as well. So if you have a bit too much to drink over the holiday and think you'll do the smart thing and walk home instead -- well, that's not so smart after all. Steve Levitt has compared the risk of drunk walking with drunk driving and found that the former can potentially pose a greater risk:

Does Marijuana Legalization Lead to Fewer Traffic Fatalities?

That's the claim of a new paper by D. Mark Anderson and Daniel I. Rees, put out by the IZA, titled "Medical Marijuana Laws, Traffic Fatalities, and Alcohol Consumption":

To date, 16 states have passed medical marijuana laws, yet very little is known about their effects. Using state-level data, we examine the relationship between medical marijuana laws and a variety of outcomes. Legalization of medical marijuana is associated with increased use of marijuana among adults, but not among minors. In addition, legalization is associated with a nearly 9 percent decrease in traffic fatalities, most likely to due to its impact on alcohol consumption. Our estimates provide strong evidence that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes.

Did Blackberry Outages Cut Abu Dhabi Traffic Accidents by 40 Percent?

A three-day Blackberry service outage last week in parts of the United Arab Emirates once again demonstrates the value of "distracted driving" laws. According to an article in The National, an English-language paper in Abu Dhabi, traffic accidents in Dubai last week fell 20 percent from average rates on the days when BlackBerry users were unable to use its messaging service. In Abu Dhabi, the number of accidents last week fell 40 percent, and there were no fatal accidents. According to the article, on average there is a traffic accident every three minutes in Dubai, and a fatal accident every two days in Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi recently launched a campaign against cell phone use while driving and plans to use electronic evidence in traffic cases.

Raising MPG Standards: The Second-best Solution to a Gas Tax Increase

It got surprisingly little press coverage given the degree to which it will affect our lives (thanks, pesky world economic meltdown), but in case you missed it, the Obama administration recently worked out a compromise with the major automakers that will dramatically raise the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards.

The new regulations mandate that the mix of new cars sold in the year 2025 must achieve about 54.5 miles per gallon (though if you read the fine print you’ll see that credits for various other green innovations mean that actual fuel economy will be more like 40 MPG.) For reference, the auto fleet currently on the road gets about 27 MPG. It’s a well-done agreement that will help avoid well-done citizens as global warming accelerates.

Before proceeding, let me note that I am strongly in favor of this policy. The problem of excessive fossil fuel use in transportation is multidimensional: if the issue of global warming doesn’t move you, the thought of Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad using our own hard-earned dollars to tweak our geopolitical noses should.

However, it is worth noting that raising CAFE standards is what political scientists and economists call a “second-best” solution; we could be doing considerably better if we thought all of this through more clearly.

Lottery Tickets for Safe Drivers?

Last month, Eric Morris wrote a post on red light cameras at traffic intersections in L.A. that sparked a robust debate in the comments section, something we always like. The debate centered around whether these devices are effective at reducing people's willingness to run a red light, or whether they're merely sources of revenue for the city. Perhaps you'll feel similarly passionate about a new Australian study that examined the benefits of fixed speed cameras in New South Wales. From an ABC.net.au article:

On the whole [Auditor-General Peter Achterstraat] has found that speed cameras do change driver behavior and improve road safety but not in all cases. He has found 38 of the 141 fixed cameras across the state seem to have no significant benefit to road safety.

Bad Karma-geddon? Conjecture, Construction and Congestion in L.A.

L.A.’s “Carmageddon” is over. For those in the rest of the country, or Angelenos who spent the last two months trekking in Bhutan or in monastic seclusion, Carmageddon was the result of the complete closure of a major Los Angeles freeway over the weekend. The results?

Carmageddon was predicted by almost all journalists and government officials to be a brewing traffic nightmare of unprecedented dimensions. Only a day before the event I was reading predictions by our transportation authorities stating that traffic as much as 50 miles away would reach nightmare-like proportions. Only a very few, including myself, predicted we would see a situation of unusually light traffic reminiscent of the last time a similar situation happened: the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

In fact, Carmageddon saw stunningly low traffic levels, with many who did venture out reporting they had never driven at such speeds in LA in their lifetimes. Moreover, fears that the project (which involved demolishing half of a bridge over the highway) would drag on into Monday’s rush hour proved totally unfounded, as the work was completed and the freeway reopened on Sunday afternoon, many hours ahead of schedule.

A Solution to Car Accident Rubbernecking: Setting Screens

A few posts ago I wrote a piece about traffic incidents —some of them quite bizarre—that can cause road congestion. Many of these are due to reasonable or at least understandable causes; for example, we need to have road construction, although here in L.A. we wish we didn’t (more about our “Carmageddon” when the results come in.)
But perhaps the most galling and unnecessary source of incident-related congestion is “rubbernecking.” As we all know, terrific jams can be caused even when the wreck(s) is moved out of the traffic lanes, as passing drivers gape at the carnage. It’s been quite a long time since we shared a common ancestor with the vulture, but evidently an evolutionary tie is still there.

Rubbernecking is one of the more interesting cases of moral whipsawing I can think of. All the time we sit in the jam we curse the drivers in front of us for their blood lust. But when it’s our turn at the front of the line… well, just a quick peek.

L.A.'s Carmageddon: Would Building a Train Be Smarter Than Widening the 405?

The "mother of all traffic jams," in the words of L.A. County supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, is coming to Los Angeles. On the weekend of July 16/17, an 11-mile segment of Interstate 405 will be closed as part of a $1 billion widening project. Reading of the expected traffic jams, and having recently returned from western Europe, where I traveled mostly by train, I was reminded of an earlier traffic nightmare.

This example I learned from Robert Caro’s 1974 masterpiece The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Robert Moses was New York City’s "master builder" in the mid-20th century, and famously hated public transportation.

Seeing Red: Why L.A. Needs to Keep its Traffic Light Cameras

Thus far I’ve tried to avoid weighing in on the issue of red light cameras (RLCs) in an effort to keep my comments section free of any more angry posts than I normally get, and my email free of complaints from friends and relatives (you know who you are) who've been caught in the past. However, my hand has been forced by the Los Angeles City Council's decision to consider a measure to eliminate our RLC program.

RLCs are not particularly popular. In fact, I have found that many people vehemently hate them. To give an example, the Chicago Tribune conducted a poll in 2009 showing that 53 percent of voters supported the cameras, while 41 percent opposed them. These percentages basically flipped when voters were asked if they wanted RLCs in their own neighborhood. This is a bit reminiscent of Monty Python’s proposal to “tax foreigners living abroad.”