Speeding: One of the last frontiers in improving driver behavior

July 27, 2020

You may or may not remember this, but at one time in our shared history, going without a seat belt was no big deal. Parents would drive around in their station wagons with a load of kids in the “way-back,” all of them unbuckled and having a great time. But the last few decades have seen a cultural shift in our collective thinking about seat belts, and now buckling up is second nature to almost everyone. As a result, traffic deaths related to being unbuckled are much more rare now than they were then.

Be the pace car, not the race car. Drive SmartNow we need that same sort of cultural shift around speeding. During the stay at home order this spring, Minnesota Department of Transportation stats indicated vehicle miles traveled in Minnesota dropped by 50 to 60 percent, while fatal traffic crashes, according to the Office of Traffic Safety, were up 100 percent in one three-week time period compared to the same time period in 2019. Law enforcement officers ticketed some drivers for speeding in excess of 100 mph. When they asked drivers why they were speeding, many of them said they thought that law enforcement would no longer be making traffic stops because of the pandemic – a patent misperception.

OTS Director Mike Hanson was invited to be a panelist on a recent national webinar hosted by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). The webinar’s title was “Speeding: Diverse Approaches to Achieving Culture Change.” When moderator Russ Martin asked Hanson to expand on traffic deaths in Minnesota, he replied, “Speed was by far and away the most frequently attributed contributing factor by law enforcement who were investigating those crashes.” Hanson explained that speed aggravates everything else that contributes to the crash, such as lack of seat belt or distracted driving. It takes away the driver’s ability to react to and recover from unexpected events.

Martin, who is senior director of policy and government relations at GHSA, confirmed that the problem of speeding isn’t confined to Minnesota. It’s a nationwide issue, contributing to one-third of crashes in the U.S. When you think about it, that’s not surprising: The faster you’re going, the more likely you are to get into a crash, and the more severe that crash is likely to be.

What we need, the panel agreed, is a cultural shift. No one really knows why speeding is such a problem in the U.S. Perhaps it’s part of our American culture to be competitive and push the limits, whatever they may be. Perhaps it’s the increase in horsepower in the engines of our ever more high-performance vehicles. Or maybe we’re just driven to maximize every moment of our day, so we don’t want to spend any more time driving than we absolutely have to.

Whatever the cause, authorities are coming at the problem of speeding from several different angles. Enforcement is only one piece of the puzzle (although it’s an important piece; our most recent extra speeding enforcement campaign ended July 19, and OTS will post results soon on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Local jurisdictions are helping by lowering their speed limits. For example, even though the statewide default speed limit in cities and towns is 30 mph, both Minneapolis and St. Paul have lowered theirs to 25 and even 20 in some places. Insurance companies are also contributing solutions, offering smartphone apps that reward users for obeying the speed limit. The less you speed, the lower your premiums.

The takeaway is this: Speeding is a dangerous problem, but it’s one we can solve together. When you drive, obey the speed limit. Encourage your family and friends to do the same. Remember that speed limits aren’t arbitrary; they’re set by taking into account things like crash histories, access points, pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and many other factors. At the end of the day, though, don’t obey the speed limit just because it’s the law. Obey the speed limit because it will keep you, your loved ones, and everyone else on the road safe.