The Fast and the Spurious: Knowing the Real Dangers of Speed Driving

A speeding car might not just summon someone’s cheap thrills and natural highs, the cost might even be higher because most likely one’s life and limb are at risk because of it.  For decades, traffic accidents have been the leading cause of deaths nationwide. According to a preliminary report from the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 43,200 died on the nation’s highways in 2005, up from 42,636 in 2004. Injuries dropped from 2.79 million in 2004 to 2.68 million in 2005, a decline of 4.1 percent (NHTSA Report, 2006). It is not surprising that speeding is a factor in 31 percent of all fatal crashes, killing an average of 1,000 Americans every month. In 2004, more than 13,000 people died in speed-related crashes. NHTSA estimates that the economic cost to society of speed-related crashes is more than $40 billion each year (NHTSA, 2004).

As improving quality of highways may have helped decrease highway traffic death rates, annual increases in road deaths have been seen mostly from driver incompetence, excessive speed, lack of attention to safety features in designing autos and increased numbers of young drivers with their own vehicles. However, high speed is still the greatest single cause of accidents and auto deaths. The speed of motor vehicles is at the core of the road injury problem and speed influences both crash risk and crash consequence (Peden 2004, p. 76). This is why rigid policing of speed limits and the use of reasonable posted limits seem to be especially important.

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While the cars’ most obvious function is to get people from one place to another, they can also be symbols of independence and freedom. One way that many people exhibit that freedom is to drive at very fast speeds. There is a certain amount of glamour attached to high speeds in some aspects of American culture. Race-car drivers zip along at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour (mph) before cheering crowds, and commercials frequently highlight how quickly an automobile can accelerate. On a more somber note, the deaths of certain celebrities, such as James Dean, in high-speed car crashes have made many people to think that the issue of speed driving should not be taken sitting down.

This is why under the National Highway System Designation Act, signed November 28, 1995, by President Bill Clinton, states were allowed to set their own highway speed limits, as of Dec. 8, 1995. Under federal legislation enacted in 1974 during the energy crisis, states had been, in effect, restricted to a National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL) of 55 miles per hour (raised in 1987 to 65 mph on rural interstates).

Why is there a need for the government to impose speed limits? The speed drivers choose to travel at is influenced by many factors. Modern cars have high rates of acceleration and can easily reach very high speeds in short distances. The physical layout of the road and its surroundings can both encourage and discourage speed. Crash risk increases as speed increases, especially at road junctions and while overtaking — as road users underestimate the speed, and overestimate the distance, of an approaching vehicle.

According to Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Website, in a high-speed crash, a passenger vehicle is subjected to forces so severe that the vehicle structure cannot withstand the force of the crash and maintain survival space in the occupant compartment. Likewise, as crash speeds get very high, restraint systems such as airbags and safety belts cannot keep the forces on occupants below severe injury levels. Speed influences the risk of crashes and crash injuries in three basic ways:

It increases the distance a vehicle travels from the time a driver detects an emergency to the time the driver reacts.
It increases the distance needed to stop a vehicle once an emergency is perceived.
It increases the crash energy by the square of the speeds. When impact speed increases from 40 to 60 mph (a 50 percent increase), the energy that needs to be managed increases by 125 percent.
Also, with greater speed automobiles become increasingly difficult to handle. The faster a vehicle travels the harder it is to steer around obstacles that appear in its path or to speed up or slow down to avoid a dangerous situation. Horizontal curves are much more dangerous for cars driven at high rates of speed. If the curve does not have a long enough radius of curvature, or sufficient banking for the speed driven, the centrifugal force generated will cause the car taking it to roll over. Because a car can be turned very little at high speed, many accidents occur on curves and when passing.

The useful top speeds of modern automobiles are limited on account of this difficulty of steering safely at very high speeds. Continuous speeds much greater than 50 miles per hour are impractical for the average driver, except on a few specially built roads where curves and turns are banked, and opposing lanes of traffic are separated by medial strips. Even on the best types of superhighways available today, 50 miles per hour seems to be regarded as fast enough by the majority of drivers. Further, the ability of the average car to speed up and slow down quickly is lost at speeds of 65 or 70 miles per hour, since the engine at this pace cannot give the extra power necessary for quick acceleration and the brakes cannot so rapidly halt the car (Blanchard, 1940). In other words, maneuverability decreases very rapidly at increased speeds. This makes the speeding car extremely difficult to handle in emergencies.

Among other factors associated with higher speeds, reaction times are much shorter. That means that a driver will have less time to react to avoid a crash. The distance needed to stop is much greater as well. Such indisputable factors are reasons that Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator and the president of Public Citizen, a consumer-rights group, calls the 1995 repeal law is “equivalent to a death sentence to thousands of Americans” (Wald, 10 October 1995).

Several studies have correlated speed with road accidents and fatalities. Taylor et al. (2002), in their study on different types of roads in the United Kingdom, concluded that for every 1 mile/ h (1 .6 km/ h) reduction in average traffic speed, the highest reduction achievable in the volume of crashes was 6% (in the case of urban roads with low average speeds). These are typically busy main roads in towns with high levels of pedestrian activity, wide variations in speeds and high frequencies of crashes. Not only for drivers, but speed driving also endangers the lives of other people. For car occupants in a crash with an impact speed of 50 miles/ h (80 km/ h), the likelihood of death is 20 times what it would have been at an impact speed of 20 miles/ h (32 km/ h) (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 1987). Pedestrians have a 90% chance of surviving car crashes at 30 km/ h or below, but less than a 50% chance of surviving impacts at 45 km/ h or above (Ashton & MacKay, 1983)

Indeed, several studies have proven that speeding really kills. In 1991, the NHTSA released a report showing that the deaths in highways with higher speed limits have risen after the limits were increased. The study was based on observations in 1986, when the national speed limit was 55 mph, and 1990, three years after states had been allowed to raise limits to 65 mph on rural interstates. The study found that the percentage of motorists driving faster than 70 mph increased to 19% when the limit was 65 mph, from 6% when the maximum limit was 55 mph.

Speeding by itself is not necessarily a cause of accidents, but few persons have the skill or the training requisite to driving fast safely. If a driver traveling at 20 miles an hour is careless he can usually act in time to avoid a possible accident, and if it occurs, the consequences are not often serious. At 60 miles an hour, a driver making the same mistake cannot possibly act quickly enough to avoid an accident, and when it occurs, loss of life usually results.

More than the speed laws, speed control comes nearer to offering a single solution of the accident problem than anything else that has been suggested. People themselves should be duly informed about the risks of driving fast.  The emphasis on improving safety should continue and so will the debate about how to carry it out. As government regulators and safety experts learn more about speed limits, for example, it is likely that there will be additional calls for changing standards. Safety advocates continue to call on the auto industry and government regulators to develop uniform speed limits among states.