The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. ranks second for rate of fatal speed-related crashes, group says

The District is behind only New Hampshire when looking at such deaths as a percentage of all traffic fatalities

Speed cameras on Interstate 395 near Second Street NW in 2012. (Daniel Britt/The Washington Post)

A comprehensive new report on the perils of speeding suggests that the ever-growing cultural divide between rural and urban America may include shifting views on the wisdom of putting the pedal to the metal.

Many western and southern states have been raising the speed limit in recent years, despite data showing that non-interstate rural roads are more than twice as deadly when it comes to speed-related crash rates than urban roads. But some cities, often as part of the international Vision Zero initiative to reduce traffic deaths, have been clamping down on speeding, by lowering the posted limits or beefing up enforcement and increasing penalties for violators.

The Governors Highway Safety Association has seized on that as a sign of hope that now is the time to deal with the American addiction to speed.

“We want to marshal that energy from some of the urban areas and see what we can learn from that and apply that to rural areas,” GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins said in an interview. He said the growing effort to transform some cities and suburbs into places that are environmentally sustainable and safer for bicyclists and pedestrians has created a new push for reducing traffic speeds.

As traffic deaths soar, cities pursue lower speed limits

But the GHSA’s report itself suggests it might go unheard in the complacent whoosh of speeding traffic across most of the nation, just as so many other reports before it. In calm and even-tempered language, the GHSA makes the case that Americans are basically fine with the idea that nearly 10,000 people die every year because to some it’s more important to save time than save lives.

New data on highway deaths suggests Congress might want to revisit speed limits

Even in the District, traffic deaths have risen to the highest level since 2008 despite the commitment of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to Vision Zero, which aims to eliminate traffic deaths by 2024. In 2017, 55 percent of all fatal crashes in the District had speed-related causes, a percentage that ranked only behind New Hampshire. In the Granite State, 57 percent of all motor vehicle deaths were related to speeding, the report found.

Still, Adkins said the District’s response — doubling down on the Vision Zero initiative with a host of new measures, including steeper fines and eliminating right turns on red at dozens of intersections — suggests the city is moving in the right direction. It’s also a positive sign, he said, that many people would like Bowser to go further, by banning all right turns on red and reducing the citywide speed limit to 20 mph.

“There is some movement for the first time in a generation,” Adkins said.

In contrast, a number of state legislatures have all but waved the checkered flag for lead-footers: 22 states have bumped the maximum speed to 70 mph, while seven have raised the limit to 80 mph. Texas has a stretch of highway that allows people to cruise along at 85 mph, the report says. And that’s just the posted limit.

The report, citing federal studies, notes that “most traffic exceeds posted speed limits, and this culture is mutually reinforced between drivers, policy makers, and many transportation stakeholders.”

Many people suggested that the nation would be freeing its inner speed demon when Congress rescinded the national speed limit in 1995. Combined with a lack of federal grants that fund state efforts to combat speeding — and reduced law enforcement efforts in many states — the problem has become more pervasive.

The GHSA report — called “Speeding Away from Zero” — also calls for renewed efforts to slow people down. These would include educational programs, the wider use of technology (such as traffic cameras and GPS monitoring) and federally funded programs that target excessive speed, including beefed-up law enforcement. It also notes that at least in some areas — usually cities — local governments have moved to reduce speeds, including Boston and New York.

The report — subtitled “Rethinking a Forgotten Safety Challenge” — says speeding-related traffic deaths have been almost a constant for some time, ranging from about 26 percent of all traffic fatalities to as much as 32 percent. Speeding is often part of a constellation of dangerous behavior on the highway, including drunken and aggressive driving. It’s also more prevalent among young drivers and male drivers.

But the report also suggests that our addiction to speed is a legacy of the way transportation engineers, planners and policy wonks have long measured success — reducing travel times. This has become all the more pressing as people commute longer distances or travel farther to recreational destinations.

Looking ahead, the GHSA finds bright spots in the Washington state legislature’s move to allow localities to set maximum speeds of 20 mph and New York City’s decision to cut its citywide speed limit to 25 mph. Boston also reduced its default speed limit to 25 mph from 30 mph.

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