Speeding still a problem, still deadly

Watch your speed
A radar display on southbound Snelling Ave. in St. Paul reminds drivers to slow down from a 40 mph zone to a 30 mph zone.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Dr. Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says their most recent survey, done in 2003, finds Americans are driving the fastest since the group began tracking speeds. Dr. McCartt says the monthly carnage from speeding is grim.

"Every month an estimated 1,000 Americans die because of a crash in which the driver is speeding," McCartt says.

Dr. Anne T. McCartt
Anne T. McCartt is a senior vice president at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The Institute is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the losses -- deaths, injuries, and property damage -- from crashes on the nation's highways.
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Many of us regard speeding as a birthright, and like businessman Robert Bartholomew of Hoyt Lakes in northeastern Minnesota, a self-confessed speeder, we've created all sorts of rationalizations to speed.

"It's just going with the flow," says Bartholomew. "And as for dangerous -- maybe, but I don't really think so."

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Same for Worthington businessman Greg Raymo. Raymo racks up lots of miles for work on southwestern Minnesota's rural highways and byways, and he thinks speed limits are too low. Raymo confesses he drives over the limit.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people traveling on the highway system are very astute drivers and take their driving seriously, and I just don't see it as a problem," Raymo says.

In Minnesota, state officials say, just over 23,000 licensed drivers got multiple speeding tickets last year. There are 3.7 million licensed drivers in the state. So the number of hardcore speeders is small, but they pose a big risk, safety experts say.

"It's just going with the flow. As for dangerous -- maybe, but I don't really think so."

Robert Bartholomew voices another widespread rationalization by drivers who speed.

"My car is made safe. If I do have a little incident, I'm going to have an airbag around me. I'm going to have all the protections built into this car," Bartholomew says.

He has a point. Vehicles are safer than ever. Minnesota Department of Public Safety research director Kathy Swanson says airbags and seat belts have saved untold numbers of drivers and passengers -- who in the bad old days would have been killed or injured in vehicle crashes.

The problem, Swanson says, is speeding diminishes the lifesaving capabilities of all the safety features.

"It's going to be too severe a crash, too much physics for a seat belt, too much physics for an airbag, too much physics for your brake system," Swanson says.

Minnesota and other states are trying different strategies to curb speeding. One of the newest is the use of speed cameras in Arizona and Maryland.

The cameras snap pictures of speeding vehicles traveling 11 mph over the limit and send the owner a ticket.

Dr. Elisa Braver
University of Maryland medical school professor Elisa Braver, center, and two of her graduate students, Jingyi Li, left, and Saranath Lawpoolsri, found that a small but significant number of Maryland drivers cited for speeding were not deterred by one citation, and were ticketed again the same year.
Elisa Braver

Britain is trying the same strategy. And although there's controversy over the results, proponents argue speeds have come down.

Two years ago Minnesota used federal funds to buy more human enforcement time to bust speeders. The result was a sharp increase in speeding convictions -- from 198,000 in 2004 to more than 275,000 in 2005. Now the federal money has gone away, and convictions are down.

Researchers say all the strategies to deter drivers from speeding work. But professor Elisa Braver, an epidemiologist and traffic safety specialist, finds deterrence doesn't work for everyone.

Two of Braver's graduate students at the University of Maryland medical school, Saranath Lawpoolsri and Jingyi Li, found that a small but significant number of Maryland drivers caught speeding were not deterred by one citation, and were ticketed again the same year.

Braver says some Americans regard speeding as a folk crime, something we brag about the way drivers used to brag about driving while intoxicated before drunk driving became taboo.

"We've all agreed that alcohol impaired driving is bad, and that people should be punished if they do this. We haven't yet reached the stage where you recognize that speeding is a major hazard and that it puts other people at risk, at unacceptable risk," says Braver.

The risk posed by speeding, as measured by one set of numbers, appears to be decreasing. Minnesota's 2006 road fatalities, 492 people killed, mark a significant decline from previous years. And measured by millions of miles driven, the state's road fatality rate is less than half what it was several decades ago.

But a different picture emerges from another set of numbers. Speed is a major contributing factor in about one-fourth of Minnesota's road deaths.

Even chronic speeders can grasp studies that show a child struck at 25 mph has an 80 percent chance of living, and a child struck at 40 mph has an 80 percent chance of dying.