The next time you're stuck in the MacArthur Maze, think about this: Traffic accidents, not congestion, cost Americans more than $164 billion a year, according to a report released Wednesday by AAA.

"When we think about (vehicle) transportation, most of the focus tends to be on traffic congestion, because that's what most drivers face on a daily basis," said Sean Comey, a spokesman for the California State Automobile Association.

While many motorists tend to focus on fuel prices, commute times and delays, collisions are nearly two-and-a-half times more expensive than the $67.6 million cost of congestion, the report said.

The study, "Crashes vs. Congestion: What's the Cost to Society?," conducted by Cambridge Systematics, was designed to bring traffic safety to the forefront.

"Accidents have a real impact on your life and your financial situation," Comey said. "We're hoping the study will trigger a desire to put the issue of safety back on the radar screen of public perception and public policy."

The annual cost of traffic accidents averages $1,051 per person nationwide, the report said, compared with $430 per person annually for congestion. Collision-related costs include those for property damage, emergency, medical and police services, and lost income. Congestion costs include property damage, lost earnings, medical costs, travel delays, and workplace costs. In San Francisco, Oakland and Fremont, vehicular accidents cost a combined $2.7 million annually, or $658 per person — much lower than cities of similar size on the East Coast.

In New York City, Newark, N.J., and Edison, Pa., traffic accidents cost a total of $18 million annually.

"People think 'I'm a safe driver, and car crashes are something that happen to other people,'" Comey said. "But, ask someone if they know a person who's been in a serious accident and it's difficult to find someone who says no."

Driver distraction and inattention are two leading factors in traffic accidents on the state's highways, California Highway Patrol Officer Tom Maguire said.

"There's a tendency in today's world, when we're commuting so far everyday, to take for granted how dangerous a vehicle can be," he said. "And when you do something everyday, people get complacent."

In 2006, traffic crashes killed

42,642 people in the U.S., equivalent to about 117 deaths per day and nearly five every hour, according to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

Nationwide, the number of fatal accidents has risen 4.7 percent since 1994 and in California alone 4,236 people were killed in traffic collisions in 1996, FARS reports show.

Kelli Phillips can be reached at 925-945-4745 or kphillips@bayareanewsgroup.com.