Safety board calls speeding 'national safety issue'

October 19, 2017

It's time to get serious about the problem of speeding passenger vehicles, the NTSB says. Speeding was a factor in crashes that killed more than 112,500 people from 2005 to 2014.

Speeding is a persistent problem on U.S. roads, contributing to the loss of more than 112,500 lives in crashes from 2005 to 2014, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reports in a recent examination of the causes of speed-related crashes among passenger vehicles and the countermeasures to prevent them.

The study, announced in July and released in August, examines underused or ineffectively used countermeasures, including communities' use of automated enforcement and vehicle-based intelligent speed adaptation systems. It includes a literature survey; analyses of speeding-related crash data; and interviews with national, state and local traffic safety stakeholders. Based on the findings, the NTSB issued 19 safety recommendations to federal agencies, state lawmakers and law enforcement officials to address the problem.

"You can't tackle our rising epidemic of roadway deaths without tackling speeding, and you can't tackle speeding without the most current research," NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said in July remarks announcing the study. "Speed kills."

Speed raises crash risk by increasing the likelihood of a vehicle being involved in a crash and increasing the severity of occupant injuries if a crash occurs.

The study defined speeding-related crashes as ones in which a law enforcement officer indicated that a vehicle's speed was a contributing factor. The number of people who died in such crashes during the nine-year study period represents a third of all traffic fatalities — roughly equal to the number who died in alcohol-involved crashes during the same period.

Even though most drivers agree that speeding is a safety risk, they don't feel the same stigma about driving faster than the speed limit as they do about driving while impaired by alcohol, the NTSB noted. Unlike alcohol, there are no nationwide public education programs addressing the dangers of speeding. The NTSB urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to partner with traffic safety advocates to develop and launch a campaign to raise awareness about the risks of speeding.

"The current level of emphasis on speeding as a national traffic safety issue is lower than warranted and insufficient to achieve the goal of zero traffic fatalities in the United States," the report states. The NTSB advised the U.S. Department of Transportation to track and swiftly implement the department's 2014 Speed Management Program Plan.

States routinely establish speed limits based on the observed operating speeds on road segments, specifically the 85th percentile speed of free-flowing traffic as outlined in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

Proponents of raising the speed limit often argue that such increases simply bring the law in line with reality, since most drivers exceed the limit. Once the limit is raised, however, drivers go even faster. A 2016 IIHS study showed that increases in speed limits from 1993 to 2013 in 41 states have cost 33,000 lives in the U.S.

The NTSB notes that there are other ways to set speed limits which take into account crash statistics, and in urban areas, road use by pedestrians and bicyclists. The board called on the FHWA to remove from the traffic manual the guidance that speed limits in speed zones be set within 5 mph of the 85th percentile speed and revise the manual to strengthen protection for vulnerable road users.

To deter speeding and raise public awareness of speeding as a traffic safety issue, high-visibility enforcement is needed, the NTSB says. IIHS research has shown that speed cameras work to get drivers to slow down, and their use leads to long-term changes in driver behavior and substantial reductions in deaths and injuries (see "Speed cameras reduce injury crashes in Maryland county, IIHS study shows," Oct. 1, 2015).

The NTSB urged states to remove barriers to the use of speed cameras. Only 14 states and the District of Columbia use them, typically with restrictions on the types of roads and locations where they can be deployed. D.C. is the only U.S. jurisdiction that doesn't limit when and where speed cameras are used. As of October, 142 communities had speed camera programs.

Vehicle-based approaches also can help to reduce speeding. Intelligent speed adaptation systems use GPS or cameras that "read" signs to determine the speed limit and warn drivers when they exceed it or in some cases, intervene to limit vehicle speed. Drivers can set adaptive cruise control systems, for example, to stay below a set speed.

The board recommended that NHTSA add intelligent speed adaptation systems to the New Car Assessment Program to encourage consumers to purchase passenger vehicles with advanced safety systems and drive demand. The European New Car Assessment Programme includes speed assist systems as one of the safety features automakers can use to qualify vehicles for a top rating.

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