No Need for Speed

Speeding is the cause of 30 percent of all traffic deaths in the United States — about 13,000 people a year. By comparison, alcohol is blamed 39 percent of the time, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But unlike drinking, which requires the police, breathalyzers and coercion to improve drivers’ behavior, there’s a simple way to prevent speeding: quit building cars that can exceed the speed limit.

Most cars can travel over 100 miles an hour — an illegal speed in every state. Our continued, deliberate production of potentially law-breaking devices has no real precedent. We regulate all sorts of items to decrease danger to the public, from baby cribs to bicycle helmets. Yet we continue to produce fast cars despite the lives lost, the tens of billions spent treating accident victims, and a good deal of gasoline wasted. (Speeding, after all, substantially reduces fuel efficiency due to the sheering force of wind.)

Worse, throughout the various federal documents examining traffic fatalities, the role of speeding is de-emphasized. Speeding is not even an “agency priority” of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in its annual assessment of crashes — only alcohol, seat belts, rollovers and vehicle compatibility make the cut. Rather it is in the second-tier “other focus” category, along with large trucks and “intersection-related and roadway departure.” And unlike the statistical attention afforded alcohol (20 pages of a 150-page document), the section devoted to speeding comes in at a measly three pages.

A deeper look at the safety administration’s report on traffic fatalities in 2005 also reveals a strange fact about how speeding-related traffic fatalities are tallied up. Consider this: in Texas, in 2005, 3,504 people died in a traffic accident; 1,426 (about 41 percent) were considered speeding-related. In sharp contrast, for Florida, 3,543 died yet only 239 were considered speeding-related — about 7 percent.

Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana and New Jersey, among other states, also report rates well below 20 percent. This variation is not just shoddy government work. With alcohol, for example, the 39 percent national rate varies only by a whisker when examined state to state (except for Utah’s admirable rate of 13 percent). Is it possible that drivers in some states speed more often than their counterparts across the border?

Not likely. Different states, for various reasons, analyze their automotive fatalities in different ways, but the result is that the safety agency’s official speeding-related fatality rate of 28 percent is almost certainly a low-ball estimate.

Then there is the relationship between speeding and alcohol. According to the agency, in 2006, 41 percent of alcohol-related fatalities were also associated with speeding; and between midnight and 3 a.m., 76 percent of speeding drivers killed in motor vehicle accidents had been drinking.

Despite all this, we Americans insist on the inalienable right to speed. Imagine, for a moment, if E-ZPass kept track of exactly when each car entered one toll booth and exited another, which would allow local governments to do some basic math, dividing distance traveled by time spent. If this calculation showed you to be a speeder, the authorities would send you a traffic ticket. Lives, money and oil would be saved and proof of wrongdoing would be undeniable, but the public outcry would be deafening.

Because the ticket-them-till-they-stop approach simply would not work, we might consider my initial recommendation: build cars that can’t exceed the speed limit. The technology to limit car speed has existed for more than 50 years — it’s called cruise control. In its common application, cruise control maintains a steady speed, but a minor adjustment would assure that vehicles, no matter the horsepower, never go past 75 miles per hour. This safety measure should be required of every new automobile, the same as seat belts, turning signals, brake lights and air bags.

Sure, it would take us longer to get from here to there. But thousands of deaths a year are too great a cost for so adolescent a thrill as speeding.

Kent A. Sepkowitz, vice-chairman of medicine at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.