IIHS calls for safe system approach to speeding

The most recent annual tally of carnage on our roads is sobering: an estimated 43,000 people killed in 2021. That’s more than the year before, which was more than the year before that.

Fatal crashes jumped during the pandemic, but we have been trending in the wrong direction for several years, even as other countries make progress toward eliminating road deaths. Since 2014, when the U.S. had fewer than 33,000 fatalities, we’ve seen a 31% increase in lives lost on our roadways.

David Harkey, President of IIHS-HLDI, said reversing this trend will take more than a single solution; it will require a paradigm shift. The Safe System approach — a framework that has been adopted by countries such as Australia, the Netherlands and Sweden and was recently included in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Roadway Safety Strategy — can jump-start progress. We should begin by applying it to one of our deadliest problems: speed.

Harkey says the Safe System idea is simple: At its most basic, it acknowledges that humans make mistakes and, when they do, the results should not be fatal. In this framework, redundancy is key; if one part of the system fails, others can still prevent crashes or mitigate the consequences.

Speed is a logical issue to target first. It is unforgiving of human error, making collisions more likely to occur and more deadly. But that hasn’t stopped states from raising speed limits on interstates and freeways. Today seven states have maximum speed limits of 80 mph, and on part of State Highway 130 in Texas you can legally drive 85.

Of course, drivers often aren’t content to stay within limits. More than a quarter of U.S. road fatalities are speeding-related, meaning a driver was exceeding the posted speed limit, driving too fast for conditions or racing. This isn’t just an issue on freeways; speeding is a growing problem on urban streets and is one reason pedestrian fatalities have risen almost 80% since 2009.

Harkey calls for adjusting speed limits to prioritize safety. By moving away from the conventional practice of pegging the limit to prevailing vehicle speeds, we can focus on preventing injury to all road users, including pedestrians and cyclists.

Second, we need enforcement to give teeth to those limits. Speed cameras are a proven strategy for this and can minimize encounters between police and violators. Fatalities have dropped by as much as 50% over the last decade in countries where they are widely used, yet few communities in the U.S. use them.

Third is vehicle technology. Many commercial fleets in the U.S. have speed limiters. But technology that prevents or discourages speeding has yet to be widely adopted in private passenger vehicles. Intelligent Speed Assistance, which as of last July is required on new vehicles in Europe, can keep track of speed limits and issue warnings to the driver or prevent the vehicle from exceeding the speed limit.

Finally, traffic-calming solutions such as narrowing lanes, reducing their number, or installing speed humps can coax drivers into easing off the gas pedal. Each of these strategies can help but combining them is even more powerful. Tackling our speed addiction is the perfect place to start.


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