At least once a week my son and I visit a chiropractor whose office is about a ten minute drive from our home. The trip gives my 16-year-old the opportunity to gain behind the wheel experience on a multi-lane, state highway as well as on local roads with busy signalized intersections. In the six months since he started driving, I’ve noticed a marked improvement in how he controls the vehicle, handles left turns, and looks out for and interacts with others on the road.
But when it comes to this particular trip, I’ve also picked up on the fact that he may becoming a bit “too” comfortable with the route. What’s the problem? Speed. While the limit is 45 mph on the downhill stretch of Route 46 (known as Schooley’s Mountain for those of you who may not be familiar with the area) leading into Hackettstown, he’s easily doing 60. “Watch your speed,” I calmly, but firmly said to him just the other day. “I know mom,” he replied before easing up on the gas and applying the brake.
Speed is a problem for novice drivers and one of the top causes of crashes for this age group in New Jersey and nationwide. A 2011 Fairleigh Dickinson PublicMind poll found that teen and young adult male drivers (and males of all ages for that matter) tend to speed more than their female counterparts (57% of NJ male drivers versus 44% of NJ female drivers). When it comes to how fast they’re going, 50% say they drive over the 65 mph speed limit “often” or “most of the time,” while 25% say they drive over 70 regularly. I would contend that no one (including yours truly) is without sin when it comes to obeying the posted speed limit.
A report released last week by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) confirms that drivers across the nation are speeding at alarming rates. And despite gains in nearly every other area of highway safety, speeding continues to be a factor in one-third of traffic deaths every year. In 2010 (the most current year for which data is available), 10,530 people lost their lives in speed-related crashes in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Since 2000, the number of traffic fatalities linked to speeding has increased by 7% even as seat belt non-use in fatal crashes dropped by 23% and alcohol-impaired fatalities declined 3%. Speed remains the one area in traffic safety where progress simply isn’t being made.
The numbers in New Jersey are equally telling. According to the NJ Division of Highway Traffic Safety, speed-related motor vehicle fatalities have increased 131% from 61 in 2007 to 141 in 2010. And crashes involving speed doubled between 2009 and 2010. Where are we in such a hurry to get to? And more importantly, have we become indifferent to speeding?
According to GHSA, 78% of state highway safety officials seem to think so and 61% noted that the public perceives speed enforcement as “just a revenue generator.” While research shows that high visibility enforcement (who doesn’t slow down when they see a marked police car on the side of the road) is extremely effective in changing motorist behavior, reductions in state and local law enforcement (manpower and funding) are making it more difficult to conduct speed enforcement.
What can be done to address the problem? GHSA is calling on states to focus on speed through aggressive driving enforcement, since the public believes that aggressive driving (which typically includes a combination of speeding and another unsafe action such as tailgating or weaving in and out of tracking) is a threat to safety. The association is also calling for targeted speed enforcement in school and work zones, areas I think we can all agree warrant attention.
At the federal level, GHSA believes that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) should sponsor a nationwide high visibility enforcement and public awareness campaign to address speeding and aggressive driving (think Click It or Ticket and Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over). Promoting best practices in automated speed enforcement is also recommended (speed cameras are used in 14 states and in work zones on I-95 in Maryland) along with sponsoring a national forum on the issue to develop and implement an action plan.
Having served as the State Highway Safety Director for New Jersey, I think GHSA is on the right track. But I would also argue that getting a handle on speeding is as simple as each of us easing up on the accelerator. Not only can it help reduce your crash-risk, but save gas (speeding and sudden braking can lower your gas mileage by as much as 33% at highway speeds and by 5% around town).
When it comes to teaching our teens to drive and keeping them safe after they’re licensed, reinforcing the importance of abiding by the posted speed limit is critical. Ensuring that they understand that a speed limit is not an arbitrary number, but one that’s set based on the 85th percentile speed (85 out of 100 drivers will choose this speed no matter what the signs say) as well as a roadway’s geometry (i.e., road width, curves, grades, type of location) is important. Teens also need to understand the physics associated with safely operating a motor vehicle and how speed impacts braking distance and vehicle control (the faster you’re going, the longer it takes to bring a car to a complete stop).
But perhaps most importantly, as parents we need to set a good example and drive within the posted speed limit. Consider this, if you’ve got a lead foot there’s a good chance your teen driver—who has been watching you drive since the day you brought him home from the hospital—probably will too. The numbers posted along the side of the road aren’t suggestions, but the maximum and lawful speed limit all of us (regardless of driving experience) should be adhering to so that we get where we’re going safely.