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Using Mandated Speed Limits to Measure the Value of a Statistical Life

  • Orley Ashenfelter
  • Michael Greenstone

In 1987 the federal government permitted states to raise the speed limit on their rural interstate roads, but not on their urban interstate roads, from 55 mph to 65 mph for the first time in over a decade. Since the states that adopted the higher speed limit must have valued the travel hours they saved more than the fatalities incurred, this experiment provides a way to estimate an upper bound on the public's willingness to trade off wealth for a change in the probability of death. We find that the 65 mph limit increased speeds by approximately 3.5% (i.e., 2 mph), and increased fatality rates by roughly 35%. In the 21 states that raised the speed limit and for whom we have complete data, the estimates suggest that about 125,000 hours were saved per lost life. Valuing the time saved at the average hourly wage implies that adopting states were willing to accept risks that resulted in a savings of $1.54 million (1997$) per fatality, with a sampling error that might be around one-third this value. Since this estimate is an upper bound of the value of a statistical life (VSL), we set out a simple structural model that is identified by variability across the states in the probability of the adoption of increased speed limits to recover the VSL. The impirical implementation of this model produces estimates of the VSL that are generally smaller that $1.54 million, but these estimates are very imprecise.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 9094.

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Date of creation: Aug 2002
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Publication status: published as Ashenfelter, Orley and Micahel Greenstone. "Using Mandated Speed Limits To Measure The Value Of A Statistical Life," Journal of Political Economy, 2004, v112(2,Part2), S226-S267.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:9094
Note: HC LS PE
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  1. Lave, Charles & Elias, Patrick, 1997. "Resource Allocation in Public Policy: The Effects of the 65-MPH Speed Limit," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 35(3), pages 614-20, July.
  2. Glenn C. Blomquist, 2003. "Self Protection and Averting Behavior, Values of Statistical Lives, and Benefit Cost Analysis of Environmental Policy," NCEE Working Paper Series 200302, National Center for Environmental Economics, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, revised Mar 2003.
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  9. Richard Thaler & Sherwin Rosen, 1976. "The Value of Saving a Life: Evidence from the Labor Market," NBER Chapters, in: Household Production and Consumption, pages 265-302 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  12. Lave, Charles A, 1985. "Speeding, Coordination, and the 55 MPH Limit," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 75(5), pages 1159-64, December.
  13. Ghosh, Debapriya & Lees, Dennis & Seal, William, 1975. "Optimal Motorway Speed and Some Valuations of Time and Life," The Manchester School of Economic & Social Studies, University of Manchester, vol. 43(2), pages 134-43, June.
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