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Slow down! Speed a factor in almost a third of traffic fatalities

March 09, 2012|By Richard Simon
  • A radar device in a California Highway Patrol car registers a vehicle going 102 mph on Interstate 15.
A radar device in a California Highway Patrol car registers a vehicle going… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Washington — Slow down.

So says the Governors Highway Safety Assn., which is flashing its figurative red lights over speeding on the nation’s roads, saying that "little progress has been made in reducing the proportion of speed-related crashes."

Although the number of speed-related crashes -- along with overall traffic deaths -- has dropped, speeding continues to be a factor in about one-third of traffic deaths, a new report from the highway safety group says. The problem stands in contrast to progress in nearly every other area of highway safety.

Since 2000, the share of traffic fatalities linked to speeding increased 7%, while the use of seat belts in fatal crashes declined 23% and alcohol-impaired fatalities dropped 3%, the report said. In 2010, the most recent year included in the report, 10,530 people died in speed-related crashes, it said.

"We need to bring the same level of federal and state energy to addressing speed that was brought to tackling seat belt use and drunk driving,’’ said the highway safety group's chairman, Troy E. Costales. 

Among the challenges in reducing speed-related traffic deaths: 78% of state highway offices surveyed by the group cited "public indifference to speeding'' as the biggest obstacle. Another factor, the group said: cutbacks to the number of officers assigned to speed enforcement in 35 states.

The report expressed alarm that seven states -- Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia --  have raised speed limits on some roads "despite research showing that an increase in traffic deaths was attributable to raised speed limits'' after the 1995 repeal of the national 55 mph speed limit.  Texas has the highest speed limit in the country – 85 mph on stretches of rural highways.

But the National Motorists Assn., founded to fight the national 55 mph speed limit, called the report flawed and misleading.

"The bottom line is that highways have never been safer,’’ a spokesman for the motorists group said in an email. "The federal government’s own numbers show that fatality rates have been dropping steadily since 1995. And that’s with increased speeds on interstate and other highways.

"The study admits that speed-related fatalities have decreased, however they continue to be about a third of total fatalities. With increased enforcement focus on non-speed related factors, you would expect the proportion of speed-related accidents to go up, but it’s not. It’s flat and that’s actually positive news.

"The definition of 'speed-related' itself is purposely vague and confusing, which also contributes to the overstatement of the problem,’’ added the spokesman for the group.

"It simply means that at least one car in an accident was assumed to have been speeding. It doesn’t mean speed caused the accident. It’s a catch-all category that includes things like improper lane changes, following too closely, unsafe passing and driver inattention."

The Governors Highway Safety Assn. is calling for greater efforts to combat speeding, including greater use of speed cameras and for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to sponsor a national forum on speeding and aggressive driving.

The  highway safety group’s report noted: "Despite the prevalence of excessive speed in so many crashes, no special-interest groups have mobilized to educate the public and make it unacceptable, perhaps due to speeding’s pervasive nature, media glamorization and its apparent acceptance by the public. In fact, some groups have formed -- not to decry speeding -- but to encourage high speed driving and discourage enforcement of speeding law.’’

The report, in a footnote, then lists the website of the National Motorists Assn.

The motorists association, which describes itself as an advocacy group that protects the rights of motorists, responded: "For the record, the NMA doesn’t encourage any driver to break the law. We do, however advocate for reform of the traffic enforcement system to emphasize sound engineering principles that lead to greater public safety and less emphasis on revenue generation.’’  

The new report, in highlighting how long speeding has been a problem, included this trivia: New York cabbie Jacob German in 1899 became the first driver arrested for speeding.

He was barreling 12 mph down Lexington Avenue. The speed limit was 8 mph.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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