Is Speeding a Serious Safety Issue?

The most recent NHTSA study on crashes in the USA analyzed data from 2010. The results were published in May 2014. From that study:

In 2010, there were 32,999 people killed, 3.9 million were injured, and 24 million vehicles were damaged in motor vehicle crashes in the United States. The economic costs of these crashes totaled $277 billion. Included in these losses are lost productivity, medical costs, legal and court costs, emergency service costs (EMS), insurance administration costs, congestion costs, property damage, and workplace losses. 

Key findings included:

  • Alcohol-involved crashes resulted in 13,323 fatalities, 430,000 nonfatal injuries, and $59.4 billion in economic costs in 2010, accounting for 21 percent of all crash costs.
  • Speed-related crashes (where at least one driver was exceeding the posted limit OR driving too fast for conditions) were connected to 10,536 fatalities (another third of the total for the year). This represents 32 percent of all fatalities; 20 percent of all nonfatal injuries, and 16 percent of all property-damage-only crashes.
  • Seat belt non-use represents an enormous lost opportunity for injury prevention. In 2010 alone, over 3,350 people were killed and 54,300 were seriously injured unnecessarily because they failed to wear their seat belts
  • Crashes in which at least one driver was identified as being distracted resulted in 3,267 fatalities…

As a nation of drivers, we continue to struggle with key behavior related issues like drinking and driving, speeding, failure to use seat belts and distracted driving.  Our response to these issues over the years has been to target education and enforcement campaigns to try and convince drivers to change their habits voluntarily.

Social norming” to get behavior change tends to be a very slow process and seems to have hit a plateau — we’ve made great gains in select areas since the 1970s — reducing impaired driving deaths from 50% of the annual total to 30%; increasing seat belt usage to an all-time high of roughly 84% (national average — some states are individually higher).

Unfortunately, we’ve slipped backwards on speeding with the removal of the national speed limit of 55 MPH previously established between 1974 and 1995.  Further, the widespread use of electronic devices has contributed to a new group of crashes caused by driver inattention.

Over the past decade, much legislative and media attention has been devoted to “Distracted Driving” but not nearly as much to other (pardon the pun) ‘drivers’ (factors) of fatal crashes.

Consider society’s view of speeding in contrast to distracted driving.  Most motorists look at speeding as a “non-issue” and not a “big deal” from a safety standpoint (AAFTS traffic safety culture surveys have documented a “prevailing attitude of “Do as I say, not as I do” on the part of American motorists”).

Recently a columnist participated in a “press drive” — a marketing opportunity hosted by a car manufacturer to let journalists test drive new or special edition models out on public roads. While each journalist was admonished to obey all traffic laws, this particular journalist was amazed at the power and acceleration of the test car and wound up getting clocked by police radar at 93 MPH in a 55 MPH zone. (To see his whole article about his speeding incident and subsequent three days in jail, click HERE)

Consider his reaction to the incident:

When I was pulled over during a press drive earlier this summer, I had been living in Washington D.C. for about a year and a half. In that time, I had been warned repeatedly — by ex-Virginia resident Matt Hardigree, by many of our readers, and by a host of other people — that you don’t ever speed in Virginia. But I had no clue just how serious the consequences would be. Maybe “serious” isn’t the right word. After everything that happened, “ridiculous” seems a little more accurate.[emphasis added]

I should probably explain why going into Virginia to have fun in a car is a bad idea in the first place. See, they’re crazy about speeding there. Really, really crazy. Speed limits are set absurdly low, 45 mph on some highways. [Virginia presumably follows the same federally recommended standards, or a derivative of those engineering practices when setting limits on roads based on design, traffic volume, etc.] Radar detectors are illegal, and cops have devices to detect them. And if you get caught going over 80 mph at all, that’s automatically a reckless driving charge.

Reckless driving is not a traffic citation, it’s a criminal charge, and a Class One misdemeanor at that. That means it’s the highest level of misdemeanor you can be charged with in Virginia, right below a felony. The maximum penalty for a reckless driving conviction is a $2,500 fine, a six month driver’s license suspension, and up to a year in jail.

See what I mean when I told you it’s serious? They hand it out like it’s Halloween candy, too. You drive 20 mph over the limit, it’s reckless driving. They even charge you with it for failing to properly signal, or when you’re found to be at fault in a car wreck. I’ve heard of some cases where people get 30 days in jail if they speed over 100 mph.

Other Class One misdemeanors in Virginia include animal cruelty, sexual battery, and aiming a firearm at someone. This is how the state regards people who drive over 80 mph.

I do think Virginia’s speed laws are absurdly harsh, especially as a native of Texas where 80 mph is an almost universally accepted highway speed by most drivers and where a toll road just outside of Austin lets you go 85 mph. There, this probably would have been a really expensive speeding ticket; maybe even one I could get dismissed with defensive driving.[emphasis added] I covered the courts for a long time when I was a newspaper reporter in Austin, and I was floored to learn Virginia actually sends people to jail just for speeding.

But that doesn’t excuse what I did. I came into Virginia and broke their laws; I drove way too fast. This is my fault and no one else’s. (Well, maybe the ZL1’s.) This wasn’t one of those moments where I got nailed going 5 mph over in some ridiculously low section of a county designed only for revenue collection; how could I justify going 93 in a 55 when I went to court, I wondered?

So, the driver hired an attorney to broker a plea deal with the court.

The best plea deal I got was a fine of about $400 with court costs, a 10-day suspension of my license in Virginia, and three days in jail. The judge has an option of giving one day in jail for every mile an hour over 90 mph, and he would exercise it here.

So I took the plea, but I was pretty despondent over the outcome for weeks. The fees and license suspension weren’t a big deal, but I was alternately livid and depressed that I’d be going to jail, even for a short stay. I didn’t hurt anyone, or kill anyone, or sell drugs, or drive drunk, or beat my wife, or steal; I was going to jail because I drove too fast in a car.

The best news of all this was that I wasn’t fired. Matt said the last thing you’ll ever get fired for at Jalopnik is speeding. It’s just an occupational hazard for us. And when I emailed Gawker’s editorial director Joel Johnson to apologize, he replied saying, “I don’t give a f**k,” and added that he found the matter “hilarious.”

Would this story have been different if the citation were for texting while driving instead of speeding?  Would the editorial director have had the nerve to consider the situation “hilarious”?

From the recent NTHSA study:

The fact that a vehicle was exceeding the speed limit does not necessarily mean that this was the cause of the crash, but the probability of avoiding the crash would likely be greater had the driver or drivers been traveling at slower speeds. A speed-related crash is defined as any crash in which the police indicate that one or more drivers involved was exceeding the posted speed limit, driving too fast for conditions, driving at a speed greater than reasonable or prudent, exceeding a special speed limit or zone, or racing.

As long as we consider speeding to be our right, speed limits to be merely suggestions, and tickets as only a way for states to make revenue over a non-issue, we will continue to have a plateau in our traffic safety results.  Things can not improve (i.e. people will not stop dying) until this nation breaks it’s obsession with speeding as an acceptable practice for motorists.

What do you think?  IS speeding a non-issue?  Or is it a deathly serious issue?

If your friends think getting a speeding ticket or spending three days in jail for speeding is “hilarious” then consider some of these Public Service Ads from countries that are more progressive in their safety attitude than the USA….

Australian PSA on how reducing speed (even by only 5 KPH) can save lives

Rushing = letting emotions control our better judgement when driving (Australian PSA)

Speeding – is it a ‘mistake’? New Zealand PSA

Irish PSA on speeding “you can’t control the consequences of speeding”

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