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,” [Connecticut State Trooper Kevin] 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.
But we do. Such carnage has not prompted a societal response akin to the movement elicited by drunk driving in the 1980s. Part of the reason is that Americans love driving fast and have confidence in their own abilities. About half admit to going more than 15 over the limit in the past month. Meanwhile, drivers do generally regard their peers’ speeding as a threat to their own safety, and so we have wound up with the worst of both worlds: Thousands of speed-related deaths on the one hand, and on the other, a system of enforcement that is both ineffective and inescapable.
What I was about to do with Trooper Roberts on that fall morning—chase down a driver on the highway, pull over the car, and issue a ticket—is the No. 1 way Americans interact with police and serves as the start of 1 in 3 police shootings. But it doesn’t stop Americans from speeding.
The nation’s most disobeyed law is dysfunctional from top to bottom. The speed limit is alternately too low on interstate highways, giving police discretion to make stops at will, and too high on local roads, creating carnage on neighborhood streets. Enforcement is both inadequate and punitive. The cost is enormous. And the lack of political will to do something about it tracks with George Carlin’s famous observation that everybody going faster than you is a maniac and everybody going slower than you is an idiot. The consensus is: Enforce the speed limit. But not on me, please. Because while it would be nice to save 10,000 lives a year, it sure is fun to drive fast.
From there, the story goes into the history and demise of the national 55 MPH speed limit, the promise and pitfalls of speed cameras, why speeding on city streets is deadlier than speeding on the interstate, and more. I’m old enough to remember the entire history of the 55 MPH speed limit, and I don’t miss it. I tend to agree with the assertion that raising a speed limit from something that was artificially low to something more like what most people actually drive does not make people drive even faster. I don’t feel any less safe on Texas highways now than I did thirty years ago. On the other hand, we definitely need to take real action to slow people down on city streets, especially in areas where pedestrians and bicyclists are at risk. The difference between even going 25 MPH and going 35 or 40 MPH, particularly in the type of oversized vehicle most people drive, can easily be fatal. I have one daughter who drives and another who will be old enough to take drivers’ ed next year, and road hazards are one of my biggest worries about them. Unfortunately, I don’t feel optimistic about any good solutions that the public will accept coming around. Read the whole thing, and stay safe out there.