The Inalienable Right to Speed
One of my pet peeves in the reporting of traffic crashes is the inevitable question asked by a correspondent at the scene: “Do we know if drugs or alcohol were involved?”
This question subtly implies that if they were not involved, that somehow qualitatively changes the nature of the crash. The person could have been driving in a criminally negligent manner, but as long as drugs or alcohol were not involved we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. It must have “just been an accident.” The legal penalties are adjusted accordingly.
To use just one example of how this obsession with alcohol in crashes can skew the actual causes of risk on the road, Leonard Evans notes that while MADD was formed after the death of a child by a drunk driver, about 90% of child pedestrians killed in traffic fatalities are killed by sober drivers.
Kent Sepkowitz, in an op-ed in today’s New York Times, makes several interesting points on this theme. One is that speeding is not treated as an agency “priority” at NHTSA, and that “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.”
He also points to the statistical aberrations littered throughout NHTSA reporting: “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.” Were Texans just driving vastly faster than Floridians? “Not likely,” says Sepkowitz. “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.”
He goes on to make an argument that, in many other contexts, would be seen as sensible, but in the context of the road has always been seen as somehow draconian and repressive: Limit the speed automobiles can travel. There would be fewer lives lost, less of a social cost in crashes (twice the cost of congestion, some estimates have found), and a reduction in fuel consumption and emissions. We also wouldn’t need to spend vast sums for police troopers to sit on the side of the road (or install automated speed cameras) and catch the random trickle of offenders. Instead of trolling around trying to clamp down on the unpleasant side effects, why not go straight to the source?
It remains a good and open question why cars are sold with the ability to perform at over twice the statutory limit. We tend to bang on about “personal responsibility,” freedom, etc. I frankly don’t really care whether someone, like the Lamborghini driver recently in Los Angeles whose car disintegrated into flame upon high-speed impact with a parking structure, chooses to take his own risks. But, given that the roads are public, shouldn’t the rest of us have the freedom not to be routinely threatened by the actions of people like this?
This entry was posted on Monday, September 8th, 2008 at 8:38 am and is filed under Cars, Drivers, Risk, Roads, Traffic Enforcement, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.