The True Cost of a Traffic Death

In traffic safety, fatalities and serious injuries are the ultimate standard by which road safety progress is measured. These numbers are astounding: Road crashes killed an estimated 42,060 people in 2020 in the United States and about 1.35 million globally in 2019. Death is a worst-case outcome; the World Health Organization estimates that every year, an additional 20 to 50 million people around the world suffer nonfatal injuries.

When it comes to workplaces, the statistics grow even more sobering. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of all work-related deaths in the US (about 40 percent) and account for at least 25 to 30 percent in the US, Australia, and European Union countries.

Tellingly, in December 2020, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 1,005 commercial truck and sales/delivery workers died in 2019 from occupational road crashes, the highest number since this reporting began in 2003. And, motor vehicle crashes cost US employers $72.2 billion in 2019 alone—$751,382 per death and $75,176 per nonfatal injury. Included in these figures are lost productivity, liability, medical and workers’ compensation costs, and reputational damage.

Clearly, we have a problem with workplace road safety. But death is not just a number.

(Incidentally, countless statisticians in the twentieth century have attempted to figure out just that—the economic cost of a human life. It’s an inherently complex, uncomfortable exercise rife with moral dilemmas and multiple variables, but ten million dollars seems to be the current going rate, according to Value of Statistical Life calculations.)

The Costs of a Death

A mere number, of course, can’t express how even a single death leaves enormous loss in its wake, not just for the individual who died, but for everyone that lost life touched, influenced, and guided in turn. These invisible ripples trickle quietly through a family and then a community, flowing on into a bigger society in ways big and small for years, decades, and even generations.

The costs of a road crash death are not just monetary, but truly incalculable in terms of human suffering. As anyone who has ever mourned the death of a colleague (especially a sudden, unexpected one) knows, here are some of the consequences for survivors, families, businesses, and society:


  • Survivors, whether they’re family, colleagues, or friends, often suffer severe psychological trauma. They deal not only with the sudden shock and aftermath of losing that person, but they must also process that emotional trauma over the long term—sometimes for the rest of their lives.

  • Part of this trauma includes “survivor’s guilt,” grief, depression, anger, anxiety, sleep disorders, and an inability to concentrate and function in daily work and life. Surviving colleagues, family, and friends may become anxious that the same fate could happen to them as the one they lost. Many survivors, especially those who were present in the crash in which the loved one died, live with post-traumatic stress disorders, or PTSD; in the severest cases, this can impede them from living and working normally (they may have a fear of riding in or driving a vehicle, for instance).

    In the workplace, these issues can jeopardize jobs, reduce productivity and quality of life both personally and professionally, and shred everyday functioning. They can also trigger or worsen substance abuse, which in turn compounds mental, medical, and mortality risks, especially behind the wheel.

  • The loss of income over the deceased person’s expected lifetime can be devastating for their surviving family, who must find other means of support or become dependent on others. The older children of the deceased may need to drop out of school to work to support the surviving parent and siblings, which limits their own prospects for economic and social mobility.

  • Governments pay huge costs to provide social services for families who have lost a wage earner. Such costs directly and indirectly affect businesses and companies, who may be required to pay higher taxes long-term to cover collective expenses.

  • Communities suffer from the deceased’s lost productivity and contributions, not just in terms of the workplace but also in civic society.

  • Companies have to absorb both lost revenue and increased expenses when they need to recruit and train a replacement worker; even then, that new hire may not ever quite equal the productivity and revenue from an exceptionally talented, specialized, or experienced worker.

  • A company incurs increased liability costs, which include immediate payouts for property damage and healthcare, and potentially longer-term ones to settle lawsuits and pay for related legal counsel. These payouts can also trigger increased company insurance premiums and deductibles.

  • In the larger picture, a death also ends any possibility of that person having further family and children—and in turn, those contributions that family would have brought to their community and society.

  • If the deceased worker caused a road crash that killed others, then all of the above applies—this time to the other person(s) who died.

The Costs of a Serious Injury

Even if a worker didn’t die but was seriously injured, the road ahead is still a long one:

  • The injured worker may suffer temporary or permanent loss of income, productivity, and quality of life.

  • The injured worker may be in fragile mental and physical health for an extended time or possibly the remainder of their lives, and the associated costs of treating them can be staggering. Family members may need to become caregivers, which compromises their own jobs, careers, incomes, and education. 

  • Companies must bear the costs for continued medical and mental healthcare for the injured, directly or indirectly, through higher insurance deductibles and premiums, potential legal settlements, and increased government taxes.

  • In some situations, employer and government compensation may expire while the injured person continues to need care. When that happens, the mounting costs of medical, rehabilitation, and long-term care in some countries (such as the US) often force families to sell assets or accrue enormous debt. This in turn can compromise basic living needs such as food and shelter, as well as prospects for career development and higher education (and thus generational wealth).

  • Governments around the world pay astronomical costs to provide medical care, rehabilitation expenses, disability payments, mental health and substance abuse treatment, subsidized housing, and other forms of welfare support for both the injured and their families, sometimes for years or even decades. These costs get passed down to all of us (including companies and businesses) in some form or another—mainly through taxes, which are intergenerational. Your great-grandchildren will be paying these taxes!

  • Once again, all of the above may be repeated—this time for other parties who were seriously injured in the road crash.

Other Unintended Ripple Effects

  • When a road crash involves death or serious injury, additional costs are associated with emergency services, insurance administration, traffic congestion, and property damage and disruption. Who pays for this? Once again, we all do—governments, companies, small businesses, and individuals.

  • There is a hidden toll of psychological stress and trauma that is sustained by the first responders, law enforcement, and emergency medical personnel who attend crash scenes and work in hospitals, treat the dying and injured, and notify families. This topic usually does not receive much public attention, but PTSD, substance abuse, sleep disorders, medical issues, financial dissatisfaction, and suicide are alarmingly common in these professions.

Every one of us—whether we’re employed or not—is a road user, as drivers, passengers, cyclists, and pedestrians. And this is regardless of age, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. For companies and businesses, monetary costs are very real, and there can be constant pressure to watch every dime. But, as every manager knows, a company’s greatest assets are its people. Given the priceless value of people and the exponential consequences outlined above, the question to be asked is why wouldn’t a company do everything reasonable to keep its workers safe? 

The cost of human damage to a company far outweighs the financial damage.

Here’s one more thing to consider: Companies often publicly say that they want to do good in their community as part of their mission to be socially responsible. They might contribute to charity, hold philanthropic events, sponsor scholarships, or fund food drives. But one of the very best ways a company can truly help its community is to keep the people who live, drive, walk, ride, and bike in it safe. We’re all in it together—literally and figuratively

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