April 7, 2016
April 7, 2024

The Cost of Traffic Congestion in Houston

Thanks to the city's explosive population growth combined with some of the lowest gas prices in the country, Houston ranks 9th in the most traffic congested areas of the nation, and the worst in the state of Texas.

Even more alarming than the cost of wasted fuel and hourly wages lost due to these delays are the cost to property and human life caused by the city's epic traffic congestion.

The Untold Cost of Congestion

This number is compounded when you bring in factors like constant construction (thanks to our city’s population growth) and the seasonal influx of tourists (we’re still getting over the effects of that recent NCAA tournament).

As commuting numbers continue to rise around America, and urban sprawl shows no sign of stopping, analysts at the federal and state levels have been asking the question of how traffic congestion relates to vehicle accidents.

Some believe that more traffic means more protection from accidents. After all, when you’re creeping along at under ten miles per hour, how bad can a fender bender really be?

But according to studies, the number of fatal vehicle accidents is greater on highways where there is more traffic than those with less.

How Congestion Creates Accidents

Competitive behavior between motorists

The creeping crawl of vehicles along a crowded highway causes some drivers to adopt a maverick approach. Cutting lanes, jumping lights, driving into the shoulder and other sudden (and illegal) moves may get a single driver ahead, but are more likely to put several drivers in the hospital. (Not to mention make the traffic delay even worse.)

Lack of attention

By contrast, some drivers adopt a laissez-faire attitude in heavily congested traffic. They might take the opportunity to check their map, eat their breakfast, finish getting dressed or grooming themselves for work. They might indulge in that all too common guilty pleasure of texting behind the wheel. It’s also not uncommon for drivers caught in early morning commute congestion to fall asleep.

While these drivers might reason that they can’t cause an accident by doing other things in a car that is technically not moving, this kind of behavior (known officially as “distracted driving”) kills eight people and leaves 1161 injured every day across the country.

Ripple effects

On any given highway at any time of day, there are a number of travel-related incidents that affect traffic. Known as “disablements” in the transportation world, these include flat tires, mechanical failures, running out of gas. These are things that all motorists have experienced at one time or another.

According to research done by Anthony Downs for his book Still Stuck in Traffic, these incidents tend to cause about 15-30 minutes of delay per car. And though these incidents are minor and don’t cause death on their own, they often send shock waves into downstream traffic, as other drivers react with increasing suddenness to a vehicle slowing down, stalling or pulling over to the side of the road.

In short, it’s not uncommon that a flat tire at Mile 50 can cause a rear-end collision (or worse) at Mile 60.

Normal driving

It’s true—even if everyone is abiding by the rules of traffic, accidents can be caused by simple things like trying to merge, exit or change lanes in heavy traffic. And when you’re in an area with narrow lanes, narrow shoulders, low bridge clearances and limited sight distances (such as on the I-45 between I-10 and I-610 S), you’re looking at a very small margin of error.

Be Prepared to Wait

So what is the solution to the problem Houston currently faces? It’s nothing new: be aware, drive safely, and be both optimistic (Texas Monthly reports that improvements are underway for some of the most congested parts of the I-45, I-10 and U.S. 59) and patient. Until those improvements have been implemented, it’s best to either rethink your commute, take advantage of public transportation, or be mentally prepared to wait it out.

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