Tired of bad news about rising gas prices? Higher prices at the fuel pumps may lead to significant reductions in deaths related to vehicle crashes and air pollution, suggests a study from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

A 20 percent increase in gasoline prices may be associated with nearly 2,600 fewer deaths nationally from motor vehicle crashes and air pollution, suggests a study by J. Paul Leigh, Ph.D., and Estella M. Geraghty, M.D., M.S., M.P.H., of University of California, Davis.

The researchers developed a simulation model exploring the likely effects of an increase in gasoline prices on two specific causes of death: motor vehicle crashes, including deaths among pedestrians and bicyclists; and deaths related to air pollution, specifically particulate pollutants. The model, which assumed that an increase in gas prices would lead to reduced demand, used actual values for gas prices and deaths for 2003.

Assuming other factors were constant, the model estimated that a 20 percent increase in gas prices would result in 1,994 fewer deaths from motor vehicle crashes and 600 fewer deaths from air pollution.

The simulation results were backed up by historical data from the 1970s and 1980s, when increases in the price of gasoline were accompanied by significant reductions in motor vehicle fatalities. The actual effects of air pollution on deaths may be higher than assumed by the study model.

The study has a number of limitations, especially in that it cannot account for all of the interrelated factors that might affect the link between gas prices and mortality rates.

The findings are timely, especially in light of recent dramatic increases in gas prices and the discussion of "carbon taxes" in the debate over global warming. The results may have implications for future debates about gas taxes — especially given that U.S. taxes are lower than in other countries — although the authors emphasize that other factors must be considered. The authors conclude, "It is likely that vehicle crashes and air pollution will figure prominently in future analyses of the effects of gas prices on population health."