Traffic crashes cost American motorists more than $160 billion a year while inflicting a staggering per-person toll on small cities such as Little Rock, Ark., Columbia, S.C., and Pensacola, Fla., according to a AAA research report.

The study, to be released Wednesday, found that traffic crashes have a much more damaging impact on society than the bumper-to-bumper congestion that riles commuters in many metropolitan areas.

Maryland-based Cambridge Systematics Inc., which conducted the research for the automobile association, found that crashes cost U.S. motorists $164.2 billion a year, or about $1,051 per person. That's more than double the $67.6 billion in annual costs from congestion, or about $430 per person.

To calculate the crash costs, researchers took into account factors such as property damage, lost earnings, medical costs, emergency services, legal costs and travel delays.

The nation's largest cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, face billions of dollars in costs each year from car accidents. In the New York metropolitan area, they cost the region $18 billion a year, or about $962 per person, while they cost Los Angeles more than $10 billion a year, or $817 per person.

Researchers, however, found that residents of smaller cities faced a larger per-person burden. Crashes in the Little Rock-North Little Rock region in Arkansas cost $1.4 billion, or $2,258 per person, while car wrecks carried a price tag of $1,772 a person around Pensacola, Fla., and $1,568 a person in Columbia, S.C.

Robert L. Darbelnet, AAA's president and chief executive, noted that nearly 43,000 people die each year on the nation's roadways but that "the annual tally of motor vehicle-related fatalities barely registers as a blip in most people's minds."

"It's time for motor vehicle crashes to be viewed as the public health threat they are," Darbelnet said.

To address the high costs, AAA recommended that lawmakers make safety more of a priority in their transportation planning and pursue measures such as stiffer laws on drunken and impaired driving. The organization also recommended that all states pass primary enforcement seat belt laws, which allow law enforcement officers to stop motorists if their only offense is failing to buckle up.

Legislators in 26 states and the District of Columbia have primary enforcement laws. The remaining states have secondary enforcement laws, which allow tickets for seat belt violations only if motorists are stopped for other offenses. New Hampshire has no seat belt law for adults.

Among other cities, the researchers found that crashes cost:

—$1,439 a person in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area.

—$1,368 a person in Phoenix, Mesa and Scottsdale, Ariz.

—$1,058 a person in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Wash., region.

—$887 a person in the Chicago metropolitan area.

—$868 a person in the Detroit metropolitan region.

—$658 a person in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Researchers were unable to provide results for Atlanta and for cities in Massachusetts and Texas because of a lack of data critical to the study.