The American Addiction to Speeding



Speeding is a national health problem and a big reason why this country is increasingly an outlier on traffic safety in the developed world. More than 1 in 4 fatal crashes in the United States involve at least one speeding driver, making speeding a factor in nearly 10,000 deaths each year, in addition to an unknowable number of injuries. Thousands of car crash victims are on foot, and speed is an even more crucial determinant of whether they live or die: The odds of a pedestrian being killed in a collision rise from 10 percent at 23 mph to 75 percent at 50 mph. And we’re now in a moment of particular urgency. Last year, when the pandemic shutdowns lowered total miles traveled by 13 percent, the per-mile death rate rose by 24 percent—the greatest increase in a century, thanks to drivers hitting high velocities on empty roads. “COVID,” Roberts said, “was midnight on the day shift.”

In the first six months of 2021, projected traffic fatalities in the U.S. rose by 18 percent, the largest increase since the U.S. Department of Transportation started counting and double the rate of the previous year’s surge. “We cannot and should not accept these fatalities as simply a part of everyday life in America,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a press release.


It is as strange as cigarettes on airplanes or dating ads in newspapers to think that between 1974 and 1995, the United States maintained a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour in the name of saving lives. It was one of those moments, like the end of the Concorde’s supersonic passenger jet service or the collapse of the Arecibo Telescope, when technology lurched backward.

The 50-state slowdown known as the “double nickel” began in 1973, with President Richard Nixon’s appeal for collective sacrifice. In retaliation for America’s support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, the coalition of Middle Eastern states known as OPEC decided that fall to stop selling oil to the United States. Prices quadrupled. The president wanted Americans to change their ways: He asked gas stations to close on Sundays and businesses to turn off lighted advertisements. Mayors and department stores dimmed Christmas bulbs nationwide. Daylight saving time went year-round in an effort to use less electric light. Thanks to the lowered thermostat, women were permitted to wear pants in the White House.


But that did not come to pass. The number of annual auto deaths dropped below 44,000 in 1990 and has not passed that number since; instead, it fell to a 40-year low in 2014, despite enormous growth in the number of cars on the road. Every state has raised the speed limit over the past few decades, with parts of Texas now topping out at 80 mph.


Given all this, speeding enforcement could use a tighter focus. Relatively few motorists drive at what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls “extreme speeds” of more than 20 mph over the limit. In the District of Columbia, it was just 6 percent of speeders in 2019. (One of them was going 132 mph in a 50 mph zone.) For a police-based enforcement system to be able to find and stop those drivers would be remarkably good luck. But those are exactly the drivers most likely to hurt themselves or others in a crash.


Speed cameras and speed traps have something in common: They both rely on the wisdom of speed limits, which are not very wise. The conventional wisdom in the field of traffic engineering is that the speed limit should be set according to the 85th percentile rule—at the speed of the 15th-fastest of 100 drivers on the road. City transportation officials do not like this method: The fastest 15 percent of drivers, they argue, are not always the most rational appraisers of what constitutes a safe speed. Nor should drivers’ interests determine the character of a street for its other users. In an essay in the Harvard Law Review, Greg Shill and Sara Bronin write, “The 85th Percentile Rule is perhaps unique in American law in empowering lawbreakers to activate a rewrite of the law to legalize their own unlawful conduct.”

Author(s): Henry Grabar

Publication Date: 15 Dec 2021

Publication Site: Slate