The Inalienable Right to Speed

One of my pet peeves in the reporting of traffic crashes is the inevitable question asked by a correspondent at the scene: “Do we know if drugs or alcohol were involved?”

This question subtly implies that if they were not involved, that somehow qualitatively changes the nature of the crash. The person could have been driving in a criminally negligent manner, but as long as drugs or alcohol were not involved we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. It must have “just been an accident.” The legal penalties are adjusted accordingly.

To use just one example of how this obsession with alcohol in crashes can skew the actual causes of risk on the road, Leonard Evans notes that while MADD was formed after the death of a child by a drunk driver, about 90% of child pedestrians killed in traffic fatalities are killed by sober drivers.

Kent Sepkowitz, in an op-ed in today’s New York Times, makes several interesting points on this theme. One is that speeding is not treated as an agency “priority” at NHTSA, and that “unlike the statistical attention afforded alcohol (20 pages of a 150-page document), the section devoted to speeding comes in at a measly three pages.”

He also points to the statistical aberrations littered throughout NHTSA reporting: “Consider this: in Texas, in 2005, 3,504 people died in a traffic accident; 1,426 (about 41 percent) were considered speeding-related. In sharp contrast, for Florida, 3,543 died yet only 239 were considered speeding-related — about 7 percent.” Were Texans just driving vastly faster than Floridians? “Not likely,” says Sepkowitz. “Different states, for various reasons, analyze their automotive fatalities in different ways, but the result is that the safety agency’s official speeding-related fatality rate of 28 percent is almost certainly a low-ball estimate.”

He goes on to make an argument that, in many other contexts, would be seen as sensible, but in the context of the road has always been seen as somehow draconian and repressive: Limit the speed automobiles can travel. There would be fewer lives lost, less of a social cost in crashes (twice the cost of congestion, some estimates have found), and a reduction in fuel consumption and emissions. We also wouldn’t need to spend vast sums for police troopers to sit on the side of the road (or install automated speed cameras) and catch the random trickle of offenders. Instead of trolling around trying to clamp down on the unpleasant side effects, why not go straight to the source?

It remains a good and open question why cars are sold with the ability to perform at over twice the statutory limit. We tend to bang on about “personal responsibility,” freedom, etc. I frankly don’t really care whether someone, like the Lamborghini driver recently in Los Angeles whose car disintegrated into flame upon high-speed impact with a parking structure, chooses to take his own risks. But, given that the roads are public, shouldn’t the rest of us have the freedom not to be routinely threatened by the actions of people like this?

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This entry was posted on Monday, September 8th, 2008 at 8:38 am and is filed under Cars, Drivers, Risk, Roads, Traffic Enforcement, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Responses to “The Inalienable Right to Speed”

  1. B Says:

    I agree, we should go right to the source. The driver.

  2. Brad Templeton Says:

    Since the vast majority of people on the roads speed (ie. exceed the speed limit) how could only 28% or 41% of accidents involve speeding? Or is this a judgement that there was particularly extreme speeding, measured not against the speed limit but the typical traffic speed (which is usually 5-10mph over the speed limit.)

    It is hard to combine stats. I have seen cites that 80% of accidents (not fatalities) are caused by driver inattention. This was tested by actually having volunteers drive around being recorded on camera (head and eye position) and waiting for them to have accidents. Of course, impairment (DUI) would cause inattention. So accidents could involve inattention, speeding and DUI at the same time.

  3. katems Says:

    I think you may need to re-word this statement, for it means something completely different than what I think you may have intended.

    “…about 90% of child pedestrians are killed by sober drivers.”

    I look forward to reading you book. Thanks!

  4. mp lee Says:

    it’s my opinion that it’s not so much that “speed kills” as that lane-changing kills. of course if you speed, defined as going faster than the prevailing traffic, you will inevitably have to change lanes to get past the other cars. too often i’ve seen cars cut in front of me when i felt i was traveling at a safe follow distance. in effect they made me tailgater. sometimes you find drivers rapidly change lanes so frequently and so quickly that you almost can’t tell where they will move next. surely these behaviors create more of a menace than merely traveling fast down roads.

  5. Donald Baxter, Iowa City, Iowa Says:

    Speed may not kill, as you say (mplee) but the difference in speed certainly does. On our local stretch of I-80 the speed limit is 65mph and I drive no faster than the limit if only to conserve fuel. The posted speed limit does not seem to prevent other drivers from traveling speeds in excess of 80mph on this semi-urban freeway (Iowa City/Coralville not being the largest place but traffic congestion is common on this 4 lane highway). Lane changes and merging are inevitable and should be a given in this area and the accidents are occasionally horrific. In this case, speed is definitely a killer especially considering the imperious nature of those who insist on driving at inappropriate speeds. Part of the problem is that our urban area is perceived as being so small–the speed limit is reduced to 65mph for only 10 miles–that our congestion is not considered worth slowing.

  6. jon Says:

    A worthy subject but the precisely incorrect response. It is poor driving that leads to accidents and injuries. Drivers should be better educated, and there should be far higher penalties for drivers which cause accidents that lead to injury or death, perhaps with some level of severity linked to specific penalties.

    I’m always shocked at newspaper articles I seem to read on a daily basis about drivers that have killed pedestrians, but no charges are contemplated or fined. Certainly some pedestrians cross roads at the wrong time, but it is the driver of the car who is responsible for the death.

    To limit vehicle speeds through auto design or speed limiters is to encourage the production of inferior vehicles, likely with poor performance in other aspects of their operation. Driver and vehicle capabilities can reduce accidents through avoidance, which is better than simply having the same number (or greater) of lower speed collisions. If there is no accident, then vehicle speed is immaterial.

    It is appropriate that roadway speeds are typically set at the 85th percentile. People generally know and drive at speeds appropriate for a given roadway segment. To artificially lower speeds introduces greater problems. If it is important to reduce prevailing travel speeds on a given roadway segment, then the geometric design of that road should be altered to promote driving at a lower speed. Conversely, the road might also be redesigned to eliminate harmful design elements contributing to accidents and injuries at current speeds.

    A greater problem is lack of proper lane discipline on highways, and high speed differentials between vehicles.

    It is impressive that auto related fatalities have remained substantially level for nearly a half century, while the number of autos, drivers, and vehicle miles travelled each year have all increased enormously.

  7. matt Says:

    jon, you have made lots of points, only one of which really is an argument against speed limiting of vehicles:

    “To limit vehicle speeds through auto design or speed limiters is to encourage the production of inferior vehicles, likely with poor performance in other aspects of their operation.” When this is weighed up against reduced frequency and severity of collisions, it’s a trade off I think is worth it.

    And you assert without reason that “To artificially lower speeds introduces greater problems.” I’m wondering how bad these problems are such that they are worse than more frequent and more severe collisions. You also suggest reducing speed may cause a greater number of collisions (once again without justifying it).

    The rest of your post is about collision avoidance, and you seem to only consider same direction traffic (which from memory accounts for a very low percentage of collisions). Speed (relative to the ground) is most definitely important when considering stopping distance (important for pedestrians and traffic from sidestreets), and a factor in the severity of collisions when they do happen (especially with oncoming traffic).

    Anyway, when we have gotten rid of car collisions, I’ll agree that limiting speed isn’t so important.

    I’m not saying the rest of your points aren’t worth considering, they are just red-herrings that are not mutually exclusive with speed reduction.

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