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Back to Archives | Back to September 2006 Contents 

Excessive Speed Causing Upward Trend in Traffic Fatalities

By: Earl M. Sweeney, Assistant Commissioner, New Hampshire Department of Safety, Concord, New Hampshire, and Chair, IACP Highway Safety Committee


fter years of steady decline, the number of traffic-related deaths is increasing. Very soon, the number of traffic-related deaths will reach and exceed the past high numbers, if nothing happens to interfere with this trend. The past reductions in traffic fatalities were brought about by a number of actions. Reductions occurred because legislatures enacted laws addressing alcohol consumption and driving, and new legislation required the use of vehicle safety belts. Law enforcement's coordinated efforts reduced the number of alcohol-involved crashes and gained a high level of compliance with safety belt laws. Engineering improvements to roadways including rumble strips and better road markings as well as improved highway design, contributed to this reduction. Manufacturers made vehicles safer with seat belts, air bags, ABS brakes, and automatic stability control systems. Advanced emergency medical response became available at the collision scene and in the emergency rooms, saving more lives.

Now, it seems that a speeding "storm" is brewing on the streets and highways, and the deadly forecast seems unavoidable based on recent nationwide statistics. Worldwide, speeding is a contributing factor in about 31% percent of all fatal crashes, which equates to nearly 14,000 lives per year lost in the United States alone.1 The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates the economic cost to society for speeding-related crashes is $40.4 billion a year, $76,865 per minute, or $1,281 every second.2

Alcohol-involved crashes are down, but a small group of hardcore drunken drivers and a demographic of young male "20somethings" abuse alcohol3 and drugs and disdain seat belts. This group continues to account for an inordinate amount of highway deaths, out of all proportion to their numbers in the general population.

Today's hurry-up culture has bred a generation of aggressive drivers leading to the phenomenon of road rage. In addition, the number of sleep-deprived and drowsy drivers is increasing. The plethora of stimuli inside and outside the vehicle-distracting retail signs, MP-3 players, and cell phones, among others-have relegated the driving task to a secondary function, as far as some drivers are concerned. In addition, more elderly drivers are on the road today, with slower reflexes and poorer vision, and some try to compensate for this by driving slower than the rest of the traffic.

Heavier commercial vehicles-big rigs with upwards of 1,000 horsepower under the hood, driven by drivers on increasingly tighter schedules and themselves sleep-deprived-mix with the smaller, lighter passenger cars being purchased in response to high fuel prices. When a heavier vehicle collides with a lighter one, the lighter one invariably loses-physics at work.

Traffic congestion, resulting in speed variability of the traffic stream (the frustrating sequence: stop, go, go faster, then sudden stop again), brings about the collisions from both inattention and anger.

What brings all these ingredients together into a deadly storm is when these situations are combined with the excessive speeds common on the roadways today.

Does Speed Really Kill?
The safety slogan "speed kills" has been stated repeatedly, but today it seems that the driving public does not believe it any more. Yet, many people in a residential neighborhood will name "speeding in my neighborhood" as the number-one community problem.

However, experience shows that when speed radar enforcement is deployed in that neighborhood, frequently the first ticket written is to one of the very neighbors who complained about speeders. And once these citizens leave their neighborhood's confines to venture onto the open road, even those who grasp that speed is a problem in their neighborhood shed all inhibitions and think nothing of exceeding the posted limits.

Years ago, it was difficult to muster public opinion against drunken driving because many felt that "there, but for the grace of God, go I." Nearly everyone fancied himself or herself as a social drinker, the entertainment media portrayed drunks favorably, and comedians joked about drunk drivers. Not until citizen groups such as MADD mobilized and highlighted the carnage and tragedies caused by drinking and driving did it become socially unacceptable, and drinking-related fatalities began to decrease. Now, it is equally difficult to muster public opinion against speeding.

The driving public has the attitude that everyone speeds from time to time-"social speeders" like the previous generation's "social drinkers." Automobile advertisements and the entertainment media glorify speeding, and comics joke about it. An entire generation of drivers grew up riding with parents who sported radar detectors on the dashboard and regarded speeding as a game of tag.

What causes the disdain for speed limits and failure to recognize speeding dangers?
The 55-mph speed limit, enacted years ago as a fuel-saving measure in response to the oil crisis turned many drivers off to the notion that speed kills. They saw little relationship between highway safety and the artificial limit imposed on roads that were designed for speeds at 75 mph and higher.

The threat of federal sanctions, including withholding federal highway funding for non-enforcement, caused state police and highway patrols to divert scarce human resources from the more dangerous two-lane roads to the statistically safest interstate highways with motorists who "knew" they were traveling at safe speeds.

Some local communities stopped using articulable justification such as collision data and citizen complaints for identifying selected enforcement sites, with the result that people became to believe that communities rely on speeding tickets and fines as a revenue stream to fund essential public services while still keeping taxes low. Motorists traveling in and through those communities fail to see the connection between ticketing and safety.

The new-generation of vehicles accelerate quicker, run more quietly and smoothly, and cruise at higher speeds, giving drivers the impression that they are in a safety bubble where they rule the road and bear no responsibility for other road users' safety.

Most drivers who regularly travel a particular route determine for themselves what speeds they feel comfortable with under ideal conditions and tend to drive at that speed. That speed may or may not mirror the posted limit. The New Hampshire Union Leader, the largest circulation daily newspaper in New Hampshire, recently invited reader responses regarding the reasonableness of the 65-mph limit on the three interstate highways that traverse the state, with the following results from 1,077 responses:

  • a majority (42.6%) favored increasing the limit to 75 mph,

  • second choice (21.9%) was a 70-mph limit,

  • only 5.8% supported the current 65mph limit, and

  • the same amount (5.8%) favored going to an 80mph limit.

Most respondents (63%) said they feel the police are currently enforcing the speed laws fairly and reasonably.4

Motorists may feel they are driving at safe speeds based on the roadway's width and condition, but the physics at those speeds exceed the vehicles' safety features and the ability of today's multitasking drivers to maintain the necessary focus and concentration. Drivers also fail to maintain the necessary safety cushion of time and distance that will enable them to react to a sudden emergency.

While once the "85th percentile speed"-the speed at which 85 percent or more of drivers traversed a particular stretch or road was considered inherently safe and therefore a reliable guide for setting speed limits, this may no longer be so. Speeds have trended upward dramatically in some locations. Eighty-five percent or more of the drivers on some roads are in fact driving at speeds that, although the vehicle may feel quiet and stable, still exceeds the vehicle's safety equipment's ability to protect the occupants from death or serious bodily injury in the event of a crash.

Those pesky laws of physics are at work again. Many highways that were designed for speeds of 75mph or higher were also designed for much lighter traffic volumes and much better road maintenance conditions than the reality of today's congested thoroughfares and budget cost-cutting measures.

Needed: An Action Plan
The highway safety community-police, courts, engineering, and public education-needs a new action plan to adjust to this paradigm shift and prevent the ship of safety from steering into this speeding storm. This action plan includes the following elements:

  • increasing public perception of the hazards of speeding

  • using new paradigms in highway design

  • setting self-enforcing and realistic speed limits

  • convincing officers on the need to enforce the speed laws

  • using metrics to target and evaluate efforts

An action plan needs local implementation, and local chiefs should take the leadership role in addressing the issue.

Increasing Public Perception of the Hazards of Speeding
First, communities need to do a better job of creating a perception of the hazard of speeding in the public's mind. That perception needs to be two-fold: the hazard of driving too fast, and the hazard of being stopped and ticketed if speeding.

In addition, speeding needs to be considered as socially unacceptable as drunken driving. Communities need to convince the motoring public that speeding is not cool, and that speed enforcement is not a game but a serious, important police function.

Effective public awareness campaigns on the hazards of speeding should include the following:

  • Narrowed field of vision (tunnel vision)

  • Less effective safety cushion of maneuvering space

  • Reduced ability to safely negotiate curves,

  • Reduced ability to react to other motorists encroaching on their lane of travel, and avoid a collision

Driving is impaired almost exponentially as speed increases beyond a certain point. The faster the vehicle is driven, the greater the kinetic energy that must be dissipated—generally in an impact.

These hazards become magnified if alcohol, drugs, fatigue, or age impairs a driver. According to NHTSA, 40 percent of drivers with a BAC level of 0.08 or greater in fatal crashes in 2004 were speeding, compared with 15 percent of drivers with a zero-BAC level involved in such crashes. Also, 48 percent of speeding drivers between ages 21-24 who were involved in fatal crashes had a BAC of 0.08 or higher.

The same relationship holds true for seat belt use: 67 percent of non-speeding drivers were restrained by seat belts but only 43 percent of speeding drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2004 were so restrained.5 Speed is a factor in more than half of the 6,500 fatal and 450,000 personal injury crashes that occur each year in the United States during adverse road conditions. The public must face these facts.

Using New Paradigms in Highway Design
For years, most highway engineers believed that the best way to design roads was to make them as straight, wide, and flat as possible in order to accommodate maximum traffic volumes, minimize congestion, and eliminate view obstructions.

Today, many engineers are re-thinking that strategy. They have realized that perhaps straighter, wider secondary roads and non-interstate routes encourage excessive speeds, and that it may be better to design roads in ways that slow drivers down rather than encourage them to speed. Also, the new paradigm acknowledges that pedestrians and bicyclists contribute to, rather than disrupt, the neighborhoods and communities through which the highway passes. Communities will see more of this context-sensitive highway design in the future.

Setting Self-Enforcing and Realistic Speed Limits
The law enforcement community needs to become more involved in joint enforcement, engineering, education task forces that include re-determining speed limits on many of the roadways. Public hearings and public input should be solicited during the process of periodically re-thinking speed limits on a given stretch of road. Considered in whether to set or validate the speed limit on a given stretch of road should be crash experience, average vehicle speeds, the design speed and features of the road, the mix of local vs. through traffic and heavy vs. light vehicles, traffic volumes, and surrounding hazards.

Once a reasonable limit is set, enforcement strategies and accompanying policies must be put in place and implemented, accompanied by locale-specific public information campaigns.

In places where traffic volumes make traditional enforcement methods at certain hours impossible or impractical, communities should consider camera enforcement. Where camera enforcement is used, law enforcement agencies should control enforcement tolerances, ticketing decisions, and dispute resolution, not vendors, or once again traffic enforcement will be perceived as a revenue-raising measure, not a safety one.

Convincing Officers of the Need to Enforce the Speed Laws
Officers at all levels need to understand that traffic enforcement is an important part of each uniformed officer's mission, and their commitment to traffic enforcement will be a key component in their periodic personnel evaluations. Agencies should establish recognition and rewards for officers who do outstanding traffic work and should participate in national programs such as the annual IACP/NHTSA Law Enforcement Challenge and the Looking Beyond the License Plate program sponsored by the IACP and 3M Corporation.6

Officers with proven ability in and commitment to traffic enforcement should be assigned as a field training officers, and promoted to supervisory ranks. Supervisors should insist that officers set an example of safe and courteous driving in their operation of police vehicles, and exceptions should be noted. In-service training events should include presentations from victims and survivors of speed-related traffic crashes to put a human face on the problem.

Using Metrics to Target and Evaluate Efforts
In today's world of limited government resources, working smarter requires using data to target all enforcement efforts. Just as crime mapping is a vital component to reduce street crime, officers should use real-time information as to the location, time of day, day of the week, proximate cause, and seasonal fluctuations in the traffic crash rate to create beat layouts, beat profiles, directed patrol assignments, and topics at shift briefings.

These efforts will fail without current, timely data on crashes, traffic violations, citizen and neighborhood concerns, detours, and potential roadside hazards. Too many officers and even some agencies regard crash reporting as simply doing the insurance company's work for them. This is emphatically not the case. Engineers rely heavily on data from officers' crash reports to target roadway improvements, both short-and long-term. Police supervisors need to match ticketing data with the locations and proximate causes of crashes, to be sure that enforcement is directed at those locations, times, and types of violations that are resulting in the most crashes. Police managers and supervisors should encourage effective supervisory review of crash reports and seek ways to increase officer appreciation of how important accurate, detailed crash reporting is. Information technology personnel can improve the currency and user-friendliness of crash and ticketing data to facilitate query requests that will identify trends in real time.

Each agency's traffic enforcement program should contain well-designed evaluation components that enable supervisors to properly target scarce resources and ensure that all carry their fair share of the load.

Local Action
The speeding storm is brewing. Crashes and deaths are on the increase, and speed is an increasing factor in whether or not a person will survive a crash. Police know that speed kills, but it seems that the public does not. Since all crashes are local, it is time for each agency to have an action plan that uses engineers, police, and public relations people to increase public perception of the hazards of speeding, encourage the setting of realistic speed limits and intelligent road design, convinces officers of the need to enforce the speed-related laws, and intelligently uses metrics to target efforts. There are lives to be saved, and it is up to us to save them. ■

1 Margie Penden, et al. Editor, World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention, (Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2004).
2 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Traffic Safety Facts 2004 (Washington, DC), (http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/nrd30/NCSA/TSF2004/809915.pdf), July 28, 2006.
3 Timothy M. Pickrell, Traffic Safety Facts:
Research Note, National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration, National Center for Statistics and Analysis, (Washington, DC; July 2006), (http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/nrd-30/NCSA/RNotes/2006/810598.pdf), July, 2006.
4 New Hampshire Union Leader, June 1 and June 2, 2006, (http://unionleader.com), July 28, 2006.
Thirteen states currently have a 75-mph interstate limit: AZ, CO, ID, MT, NB, NV, NM, ND, OK, SD, TX, UT, and WY. Eighteen have a 70-mph limit: AL, AK, CA, FL, GA, IN, IA, KS, LA, MI, MN, MS, MD, NC, SC, TN, WA, and WV. Seventeen states-besides New Hampshire-that have a 65-mph limit: AK, CT, DL, IL, KY, ME, MD, MA, NJ, NY, OH, OR, PA, RI, VT, VA, and WI. Hawaii has a 60-mph limit.
5 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Traffic Safety Facts 2004: Speeding (Washington, DC) available at (http://wwwnrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/nrd-30/NCSA/TSF2004/809915.pdf), July 28, 2006.
6 For both awards visit (http://www.theiacp.org); click on awards in the left navigation bar.


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From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 9, September 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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