Speed kills — or does it?
Monday, November 06, 2017
Tens of thousands of Americans die every year on our highways, and a large percentage of those tragedies are blamed on the relative speed of the vehicles involved. The greater the speed, the more likely an accident could end in serious injury or fatality — or so the thinking goes. But is this accurate?
I propose we accept a supposition at least in principle. Speed is a component of virtually all traffic accidents and fatalities. I say component, because studies show that speeding is not usually the root cause. A parked vehicle is rarely an accident participant, and will almost never be the basis of fault.
As a Porsche owner and enthusiast for many years, I am particularly concerned with the prevailing assumption that speeding is the cause of most accidents. It's a dangerous misconception, and I will support this claim with vehement resolve.
I don't endorse breaking the law, but I also enjoy the capabilities of my car and can often do so within the overall realm of sanity. It's what I have always loved about Porsche. You can have a blast with every facet of driving — from negotiating a downhill hairpin to entering the expressway.
Several years ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a report to congress called the "National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey," which actively supports this theory. Nowhere in this document does it cite vehicle speed as an accident cause — for good reason.
The study makes an important assertion. Vehicular incidents are overwhelmingly triggered by driver error — about 94 percent of the time. Mechanical failure comes in at a very distant second, about 2 percent. And most of what you would consider to be in this category is traced to poor vehicle maintenance as a cause.
Attributing an accident to vehicle velocity diminishes the responsibility of the operator as the focus of the accident equation, in many cases to the point of driver absolution.
Accidents by definition require a cause and an effect. The cause is an action — changing lanes without checking your mirrors, or driving at night or in the rain without your lights on. The effect is the end result — striking a guardrail, for instance. Without a cause, there is fundamentally no consequence.
If we then focus on causality within the classification of driver error, distracted driving is a controversial category of cause due in large part to the fact that it points exclusively to operator negligence — not paying attention to the primary process of driving.
The use of cellphones (especially the smartphone) is cited as a major contributor, but distracted driving is hardly a new concept. Incidents of distracted driving are on the rise regardless of the source, from adjusting the radio to passenger interaction. Cellphones are targeted because of the rise in overall use.
But let's get back to the subject of speed.
A recently prevalent area of study relates to something called "relative speed differential" — the disparate velocity of two or more objects moving in close proximity. The greater the variance, the more potential there is for an accident resulting in an injury.
This brings up an interesting point. Driving too slow for conditions can actually be more dangerous than simply driving fast. Approaching behind a vehicle traveling 40 mph when you are driving at the posted 65 mph speed limit can present as much of a danger as speeding 20 mph over the allowed maximum.
So then if we concede that speeding is rarely the root cause of an accident, why are the large majority of highway citations written for that very action? The answer can be as contentious as the comparison I led with in this commentary.
Once you establish speeding as an illegal and even decadent practice, the effort of drawing revenue from its enforcement becomes much easier. Most states engage in the practice of speed traps, road blocks and cameras as a revenue producer attributing public safety as the overall rationale.
But safety is simply a convenient justification for these tactics. If it were actually true, the enforcement practice would focus on areas where the speed limit and related incidents is comparatively high — where traffic studies (assuming there are any) support the activity.
But instead, speed enforcement tends to occur in areas with underposted limits and where safety is particularly less concerning. Why? Because speed enforcement is inherently dangerous, so it often takes place where safety is that much less of an issue — an ironic observation.
If we really want to promote safe driving (and I certainly think we should), wouldn't it make more sense to place an appropriate importance on incident cause, and perhaps even promote efforts with emphasis on (and regulation of) driver error and the resulting corrective action?
Unfortunately, driving has developed into a rather thoughtless activity. Even more frustrating is public acceptance of that fact. Driving any vehicle is an important responsibility with potentially horrific consequences, especially when you consider the substantial weapon you are yielding.
And the more we ignore the problem, the worse it gets. Consider the activity of distracted driving mentioned earlier. We are all particularly guilty of transgressions in this category. But we don't accept that these actions are integrally dangerous, completely ignoring the fundamental problem.
I admit I get up on my soapbox when it comes to the subject of speeding. But I'm still surprised at the degree of indifference, or even acknowledgment of unreasonable enforcement. I have a friend who cynically refers to these citations as the "speed tax" — the inevitable cost of doing business as a driver.
I could accept his analogy if it also included other violations such as coasting through intersections, unsafe lane changes, reckless or aggressive maneuvers and tailgating. By the way, all of these actions fall under the classification of accident cause, but not as aggressively pursued as speeding continues to be.
Until we accept that traffic accidents are initiated by the operator of the vehicles involved and not something as intangible and blameless as theoretical physics, we may never resolve the problem. It's far too simple to place culpability on a concept that the general public has long perceived as evil to its core.
If communities really want to make a discernable and meaningful difference in the safe travel of their roads, they'd focus more on accident cause than other extraneous influences. And place the specific responsibility and acceptance of nearly all vehicular incidents where it belongs — on the driver.
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