States have banned drivers from texting on the road. The leading federal transportation safety organization recommended that cellphone use be banned while behind the wheel. The U.S. government has been waging a campaign against distracted driving. The police regularly set up D.U.I. checkpoints and states are targeting drunk drivers.
But none of these measures can deal with the simplest scourge of the road, something that menaced drivers before cellphones existed and endangers them regardless of sobriety: Speeding.
Speed remains a factor in roughly a third of traffic deaths every year, and that hasn’t changed despite increased seat belt use and decreased drunk driving deaths, according to a report released Thursday by the Governors Highway Safety Association.
The report, a survey of states conducted in late 2010 and early 2011, highlights the lack of specific advocacy aimed at changing speeding laws. Groups campaign for laws against distracted driving or drunk driving, but because speeding is so commonplace it doesn’t engender the same kind of public effort.
While the percentage of speed-related deaths in accidents has decreased 11 percent since 1985, it actually went up between 2000 and 2010, the report says. The proportion of drivers in fatal accidents not wearing seat belts or impaired by alcohol both declined much more since 1985.
The study points out that male teens and young adults, particularly in rural areas, are more likely to be involved in accidents. A study released last year showed that teenagers are more likely to have accidents when they’re first on the road without supervision.
One flaw cited by the new study is the lack of a cohesive nationwide message aimed at slowing down speeding drivers. Motorists know about “Click it or Ticket” and their state’s cellphone laws, but anti-speeding campaigns aren’t emphasized as loudly from state to state. The exception is that nearly every state has specific laws targeting speeding in school zones and work zones.
The most well-known method of speed limit enforcement is also one that has a common solution. The sight of a police officer on the side of a road, aiming a radar gun at the traffic whizzing by, is almost as ubiquitous as that of a car with a radar detector stuck to the windshield.
This means drivers receive mixed signals. Speed limits are important and you must obey them, but having a radar detector is also fine in most states, with Virginia being a notable exception.
Another problem states reported in the survey is not having enough officers available to enforce the speed limits. Without officers on the road issuing tickets, fewer drivers will have an incentive to slow down.
So the states and local governments have adopted other tactics: speed cameras and red-light cameras. Speed cameras are used in more than 104 jurisdictions. Drivers, in turn, have been hit with millions of dollars in fines from these cameras.
It seems to depends on the road: More than half of the drivers surveyed said they had driven more than 15 mph over the speed limit on a freeway within the last month. By comparison, 94 percent of drivers said it was unacceptable to drive 15 mph over the speed limit on a residential street.