Americans don’t take the dangers of speeding seriously enough, safety advocates say, so it’s time for states and localities to get tougher on fast drivers. That could mean lowering speed limits, installing more speed cameras and creating a social stigma for speeding drivers akin to that of drunk drivers.
Those are some of the conclusions of a new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), a group of state traffic safety officials. The report reads like a call-to-arms for officials to pay attention to a long-overlooked danger that leads to thousands of road deaths each year.
“The only thing more shocking than the oversized role speeding plays in crashes, fatalities and injuries is the fact that little has changed over time,” wrote Tara Casanova Powell, an independent researcher, for the GHSA.
Policy makers and the public have largely ignored the issue, even though the proportion of traffic deaths related to speeding has remained steady at about 26 percent since the beginning of the millennium. “Despite the best efforts of the traffic safety community," Powell wrote, "speeding remains a cultural norm.”
The report noted that more than half of motorists admitted to traveling more than 15 mph over the speed limit on a freeway or more than 10 mph on a residential street within the past month, according to a 2017 poll.
Public policy at almost every level of government reinforces the cultural acceptance of speeding, the group said.
The federal government hasn’t put the same emphasis on preventing speeding as it has on safety campaigns for preventing drunk driving or encouraging motorists to wear seatbelts. (The National Transportation Safety Board, though, called for more aggressive measures to reduce speeding last year.) States have actually been raising speed limits, rather than lowering them. Efforts to lower speed limits have been centered in urban areas, even though rural roadways have higher percentages of speed-related traffic deaths.
“Changing these beliefs will require increased public safety education that more effectively changes drivers’ risk perceptions of … getting a ticket, causing a crash or violating social norms,” Casanova Powell wrote for GHSA.
“Indeed, drivers likely exceed speed limits by small amounts every day, observe nearly every other motorist doing the same and determine that ‘nothing bad happens,’ reinforcing this risky behavior,” she added. Motorists often figure that they can exceed speed limits by 10 mph or even 15 mph without getting pulled over. “After years of perceived tolerance regarding enforcement, speed limits have lost the concept of ‘limit.’”
Not surprisingly, the report didn't go over well with the National Motorists Association, which generally supports higher speed limits, because, it argues, many speed limits are set artificially low.
“If someone is recklessly speeding, they should be stopped and cited. But if people are driving at the speed limit or just above, they are not hurting people,” says Shelia Dunn, the group's communications director.
“The National Motorists Association believes the best way to handle any sort of traffic is to make sure that traffic is moving smoothly,”she adds. “When you artificially lower speed limits, people will drive the way people are more comfortable with. When people slow down, it will cause more accidents.”
The AAA, the national motorists group, on the other hand, supports efforts to curb speeding but wants to ensure that those efforts are made based on solid data and monitored for their effectiveness, says Jake Nelson, the AAA's director of traffic safety advocacy and research.
“We should as a nation absolutely get more serious and vocal about addressing speeding, because it kills thousands of Americans,” he says. “The debate is about the most appropriate way to address the issue.”
Why It's Politically Difficult to Slow Drivers Down
In its report, the GHSA acknowledged that many of the most effective ways to cut back on speeding run into political problems, because Americans like to speed.
So the GHSA called on safety officials to challenge some of Americans’ underlying assumptions about speeding, particularly the idea that it is a victimless crime. The group says safety groups could use the same model that Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) used to build public opposition to drunk driving. MADD worked both to highlight the victims who died or were injured in drunk driving crashes, and to stigmatize drunk drivers as a “transgressive, wrong-doing class of persons to be targeted,” Casanova Powell wrote.
“Nationally, the issue of speed lacks these faces – of either the victim or the offender. Indeed, most drivers today could be considered offenders to some degree,” she explained. “The traffic safety community should consider how it can create a new transgressive, wrong-doing class of persons that puts all road users at risk – the speeding driver.”
Casanova Powell pointed out that 9,717 people died in speed-related crashes in 2017, but there was no national organization to speak out on behalf of those victims.
In the meantime, the GHSA report called on states to fight speeding the old-fashioned way: with lower speed limits and stricter enforcement.
Many Speed Limits Actually Going Up
The report noted that state lawmakers have been pushing speed limits higher, rather than lower. The road with the highest speed limit in the nation, a 41-mile stretch of Texas highway outside of Austin, opened in 2012 with an 85-mph limit. Seven other states allow vehicles to travel up to 80 mph on certain roads. Ten states have maximum speed limits of 75 mph and 22 set the upper limit at 70 mph.
While many lawmakers argue that the changing speed limits reflect how motorists actually drive, GHSA pointed to research that showed that people respond to higher speed limits by driving faster. When Texas raised its speed limits to 70 mph on urban freeways in the 1990s, the share of drivers going faster than 70 mph jumped from 15 percent to 50 percent. The share driving faster than 75 mph went up too, from 4 percent to 17 percent.
Recently, though, several states have let municipalities set lower speed limits within their boundaries. Those changes usually came at the behest of city officials who adopted Vision Zero plans or other policies to increase safety for pedestrians.
When Boston reduced its speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph two years ago, an insurance safety group tried to measure the effect of the new law on traffic. The average speed of motorists barely budged, but the change did seem to cut down the percentage of flagrant speeders. The law appears to have led to a 2.9 percent drop in motorists going over 25 mph, an 8.5 percent drop for drivers going more than 30 mph, and a 29.3 percent drop for drivers traveling more than 35 mph.
But the GHSA said states and localities could step up their enforcement efforts for existing speed limits, too.
That has been difficult, because many police departments have cut back on personnel for traffic enforcement, and there’s no federal campaign to target speeding that's akin to the “Click It or Ticket” effort to promote seatbelt use.
The Ongoing Debate Over Speed Cameras
One way to address those concerns would be to increase the use of speed cameras. Studies in Arizona, Maryland and Washington, D.C., showed that the cameras reduced speeding of 10 mph over the speed limit or more by 70 to 88 percent. (Speed cameras typically issue tickets for drivers going 11 mph or more over the speed limit, although the thresholds vary by community.)
But states have been slow to adopt the technology. Thirteen states ban speed cameras outright, and seven limit where and how they can be deployed. In fact, only 12 states plus the Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C., currently have jurisdictions that use speed cameras, according to the GHSA.
“The demise of many automated enforcement systems can be directly credited to the ire of state and local policymakers and their constituents,” the GHSA report said.
The report also called for road features that could discourage speeding as well, such as better markings for curved roadways; traffic calming features such as pedestrian islands, speed humps and curb bump outs; and roundabouts to replace traffic signals and stop signs.
Nelson, the AAA safety expert, says officials should be careful in how they roll out measures to reduce speeding. Reducing speed limits can save lives, but lower speed limits should only be used where they make sense -- say, where a road takes a sharp turn, instead of just a stretch of straightaway where a city wants to set up a money-making speed trap, Nelson explained. Speed cameras may be a good deterrent for speeding, but they should only be used in places where data show that speeding is a problem. And it's important for officials to monitor how well those deterrents are working, to see whether they are still needed, he added.
Dunn, from the National Motorists Association, takes a more antagonistic stance. She worries that speed cameras amount to “policing for profit” or “taxation by citation,” and encourage local officials to artifically lower speed limits.
The efforts by safety advocates to slow traffic by introducing bike and pedestrian infrastructure, reduce travel lanes and lowering speed limits frustrates motorists, she says. “People feel likel they can barely go anymore.”
“Motorists are biggest voter bloc in the country, and when we actually use that power, these things go away,” Dunn says. “It’s unreasonable to people with long commutes already to make their commutes even longer.”