The number of people dying on the nation’s highways is climbing, and it’s climbing at an alarming rate that can’t be explained entirely by a healthier economy.
Although it’s true that more jobs means more people are driving, some safety advocates also say distracted driving has increased now that everyone has a smartphone permanently attached to the palm of their hand.
Others suggest that the startling increase in traffic fatalities — up more than 10 percent in the first six months of this year alone, despite advances in highway engineering and automotive design — may have something to do with U.S. drivers’ addiction to speed. Yet several safety advocates also say that nothing is going to happen as long as Congress remains virtually laissez faire about the problem.
This week, as the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and the National Safety Council (NSC) teamed up to launch a 30-year campaign to end highway fatalities, some safety advocates urged the coalition to work harder to cap or reduce speeding on the nation’s highways.
“That can create a much safer culture and it’s one thing that — just not politically popular — that could really make a difference,” said Abigail Potter, a policy analyst at the American Trucking Associations (ATA), said during a question-and-answer session at a news conference Wednesday announcing the Road to Zero initiative.
The ATA also welcomed a recently proposed federal rule that would require automatic speed-limiting devices on all heavy trucks — a step Potter said the group first lobbied for 10 years ago. But she said the truckers group also expressed concern that the proposal fails to account for the way speeds have soared on the nation’s highways since the federal government lifted the 55 mph cap under former president Bill Clinton.
To save lives and fuel, the ATA has called for a national 65 mph speed limit for everyone — knowing that it’s also unlikely to fly politically. But the group also has supported installing devices that would limit trucks to perhaps 65 mph or 68 mph — except that now, ATA officials said, those speeds could create a hazard for trucks if the surrounding cars are rolling along at 85 or 90 mph, as is sometimes the case, especially in some Western states.
“We still support governing truck speeds, but it’s problematic without other action on state speed limits,” ATA spokesman Sean McNally said.
Technology — not to mention private industry — has also moved faster (so to speak) than the federal government. A 2007 survey by the American Transportation Research Institute of 148 trucking companies and drivers — including carriers with more than 27,000 vehicles — found that nearly 70 percent were using speed governors on at least some of their fleet. Other technological developments may allow companies to operate with dynamic speed limiters that would incorporate GPS technology, as apps such as Waze do, that would allow trucking companies to adjust their vehicles’ maximum speeds depending on traffic flows. ATA officials believe the government should take that into account before passing a final rule, too.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and NHTSA announced a proposal Aug. 26 to require that all trucks, buses and other multipassenger vehicles of more than 26,000 pounds be equipped with speed-limiting devices. Three maximum speeds were also offered for consideration: 60, 65 and 68 mph. The agencies estimated that the rule would save lives and more than $1 billion in fuel costs a year. A spokesman for NHTSA said the agency is prohibited from commenting on a pending rule but noted that a public comment period is open.
There is conflicting data on the impact of speed on overall fatality rates. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) figures show that speeding-related fatalities have declined from 31 percent of all fatal crashes in 2005 to 28 percent in 2014. Yet a 2013 NHTSA survey also found that nearly half of all drivers see speeding as a problem, and one in five admitted doing it. More than a quarter said they enjoy driving fast.
What’s more, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that an additional 33,000 people have died since the federal government took its foot off the brake in 1995. Since then, 38 states have raised the speed limit to 70 mph or higher, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some states, including Montana, Nevada, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming, have boosted the maximum speed to 80 mph.
“Speeding is really a neglected issue in highway safety,” Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association said.
Adkins, who was a panelist at Wednesday’s news conference announcing the new Road to Zero campaign, said his group has been frustrated at efforts over the years to persuade Congress to revisit the subject of imposing maximum speeds on the nation’s highways.
“Frankly, we got laughed off the Hill, so we stopped talking about it, at least on the Hill,” Adkins said.
Too bad it’s not so funny.
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