The federal government told itself to tell local police to write more speeding tickets. That’s business as usual. It also told itself to make it illegal for a road not to be a speed trap. That’s new.
This advice comes in a report by the National Transportation Safety Board. NTSB consulted “stakeholders” — the ticketing industry and the auto industry — and wrote an 85 page report saying America needs more speeding tickets.
NTSB consulted the database of fatal accidents. They found, as we have long known, that speed is a minor cause of fatal accidents. The database blames speeding for about 10% of fatal wrecks. Another 10% were blamed on driving too fast.
We’re talking about two distantly-related small slices of the accident pie, and there’s already reason to doubt the data. If two crashes involved vehicles going the same speed, the one with more serious injuries was more likely to be blamed on speed. That makes sense when you consider where this data comes from.
An accident is speed-related if a police officer checks a box saying it was. We keep telling police that speed kills, so they’re going to think a fatal accident must have been more due to speed than a property damage accident. I’ve seen this before. The Massachusetts agency that assigns blame in car accidents in Massachusetts is more likely to find you at fault if your car is heavily damaged. Subjective accident statistics reveal the preconceptions of the people who generate them.
So 10% of the time police say “this car was speeding.” 10% of the time police say “this car was going too fast.” From these opinions about a minority of accidents, the NTSB concludes that we need lower speed limits with more enforcement. More than that, we should throw out the past 75 years of policy because we’re worried about pedestrians. Fatality statistics undermine that assertion.
According to FARS, about 20% of all fatalities are non-motorized. And we already saw about 20% of fatalities are blamed on speed. If pedestrians were as vulnerable to speed as motor vehicle occupants we would expect their share of speed-related fatalities to be 20% of 20%, which is 4%. According to the NTSB report, that is exactly what we observe — 4% of “speeding” fatalities are pedestrians. Speeding drivers do not have a disproportionate effect on pedestrians.
If you read my writing you already knew that. When the Mayor of Boston ordered a speed limit reduction to save pedestrians, data showed no dead pedestrians would have lived if the city speed limit had been reduced. That’s because urban accidents are rarely games of chicken between a pedestrian standing still and a car going exactly at the speed limit. If you pass a turning truck on the right, if a car backs over you, if a drunk driver lands on the sidewalk, it doesn’t matter what the speed limit is.
The NTSB also says reduced speed limits reduce operating speeds. As evidence it cites a FHWA report which says “Research has repeatedly shown that changes in posted speeds have little effect on operating speeds.” This is an old trick — misrepresent a reference thinking nobody will read it.
The report concludes with policy recommendations:
- Have the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration encourage police to run more speed traps. This is based on the false belief that NHTSA does not already do that. NHTSA “seat belt” mobilizations are pure speed traps.
- Make use of the 85th percentile rule illegal. The 85th percentile rule has been around since people noticed that average drivers were safest. NTSB suggests mandating USLIMITS2, which is a computer program designed by the ticketing industry to produce low speed limits allowing police to target average drivers.
- Adopting the “safe system approach for urban roads”, based on the false assumption about pedestrian safety I mentioned earlier.
- More speed cameras
- Even more speed cameras, specifically point to point speed cameras. A camera records when you get on the highway. If you get to your exit 55 miles away in less than an hour the camera there mails you a ticket.
- Your car should not allow you to speed. Cities are already manipulating your trips. NTSB wants to make this mandatory.
The report is full of Vision Zero. Don’t think that avoiding Vision Zero cities will save you. The NTSB explicitly wants speed limits to be low everywhere. They fear a taste of fast driving in the country will lead you to mow down pedestrians in the city.
The Federal Highway Administration is considering the request.
A moment of doubt
One of the authors partially dissented from the report. Some of her statement is worth quoting:
it is important to note that road design to address speed-related
crashes is not yet widely implemented, but should be. … some
jurisdictions are using road design features that enhance compliance
for lower speed limits rather than simply lowering speed limits.
I agree with the general principle that you should design a road consistently with its anticipated use. Unfortunately, the highway design guide we use in the United States does not properly account for all the cues that make drivers choose a particular speed. Fixing the design process is a better long term solution than responding to every accident with more speeding tickets.
The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.