Sunday, October 3, 2010

10-3-10: Massive Traffic Jams and the Cost of Life

I was caught in a traffic jam today on I-95 in Orange and the following thought popped in my head, a thought that usually pops in my head during traffic jams: "This had better be an accident and somebody had better be dead." Morbid and cruel, indeed, but it led me to wonder how big the traffic jam would have to be to be worth a human life. That is, how much time would need to be wasted by people in vehicles not involved in the accident itself, people just stuck in the traffic jam, to equal the loss of life.

I made the following assumptions in my simple calculation:

- The average length of a vehicle in the traffic jam is 15 feet
- The average number of occupants in each vehicle is 2 people
- The highway has 3 lanes
- All three lanes of the highway are closed and traffic is at a standstill
- The average length of the traffic jam is 5 miles (it would probably be much longer at its peak)
- The average amount of lost time per person is 1.5 hours

With those assumptions made, let's see the results:

Total people in traffic jam: 10,560
Total time wasted: 15,840 hours, or 1.81 years

Let's then assume that the person responsible for the massive traffic jam did indeed die at the scene and was 35 years old. The amount of time they would have lost, assuming average life expectancy of 78.4 years, is 43.4 years.

That's a difference of over 40 years. So, that traffic jam would not be worth the person losing their life. Of course, this is a very, very simple calculation, that only factors in time wasted. It does not factor in anything else like missed deliveries of goods or a missed birthday party or anything typically considered an economic or social impact. Just time wasted.

So how long would the traffic jam have to be, on average, for our 35 year old bad driver to have not lost their life in vain? Well, it's not so simple. Let's bump up the average time lost per person to 5 hours (since it takes time for people to get moving again once the road clears up, and it'd be a very long line of cars).

The answer: exactly 36 miles.

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