Speeding Blamed for Slow Progress in Cutting Traffic Fatalities
Speeding and Death
A new study suggests that speed is largely to blame for America's slow progress in reducing its motor vehicle death toll during the 1990s.
The researchers recommend a large-scale U.S. test of speed-camera networks, an enforcement policy that has played a large part in the United Kingdom's success in cutting road deaths, according to the study comparing the two countries' progress.
Speed cameras and cameras that record red-light running, however, have proven to be hot political issues in localities, despite growing evidence that they work. Opponents raise "Big Brother" arguments against cameras and contend they are used to raise revenue from speeding tickets rather than to make driving safer.
The number of motor vehicle deaths in the United States and the United Kingdom fell between 1990 and 1999. But the United States achieved just a 6.5 percent decline during the decade, while the United Kingdom cut its road deaths by 33.9 percent. The study by Elihu D. Richter, M.D. and colleagues published in the latest American Journal of Preventive Medicine is an effort to better understand that disparity.
The researchers examined how deadly the road crashes were in each country by calculating the proportion of people killed compared to all those injured, known as a "case fatality rate," or CFR.
The 1990s give a unique snapshot of the motor-vehicle death toll because both countries enacted major speed-control policy changes during those years. In 1995, the United States abolished the national maximum speed limit, and, soon after, 32 states increased their speed limits. In 1990 the United Kingdom set a goal to reduce road deaths by 33 percent; the country then introduced a series of speed-controlling changes including roundabouts as well as the wide use of automated cameras that monitor motorists' travel speeds and are programmed to snap a picture when a vehicle breaks the speed limit. Later, the vehicle's owner is issued a citation.
The study concludes that these divergent speed-control policies and programs, and a resulting upward trend in speeds in the United States, led to higher motor vehicle fatality tolls for Americans.
Red-light cameras can reduce the number of injuries from car crashes at intersections by up to 30 percent, according to an international review of studies. The systematic review appeared in the April 2005 issue of The Cochrane Library and included studies from the United States, Australia and Singapore. Supporters of camera enforcement argue that the technology has advantages over increased police patrols because the cameras run 24 hours a day and do not involve high-speed chases.
Americans' love of sport utility vehicles did not account for the contrasting trends in death tolls between countries, the study found. The researchers suggest that "speed creep" in the United States dissipated the safety gains of other measures proven to reduce motor vehicle death.
"After the United States raised speed limits in 1995-1996, the initial drop during the early 1990s in deaths and CFR reversed itself after 1995, despite large increases in seat belt use, improvements in trauma care and reductions in DUIs," the study said.
Many studies have shown that the increase in speed limits in the United States resulted in more motor vehicle deaths, according to Susan Ferguson, senior vice president for research with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research and education agency supported by auto insurers.
"All of the countries that are very serious about cutting the motor vehicle death rates, have recognized that you will not tackle this problem, without reducing speeds," she said. Most researchers also agree that speed and crash severity are related: the greater the speed the higher the likelihood of death and injury, she added.
But Ferguson said she's not sure that speed and the United State's slow adoption of speed camera technology wholly explain the United Kingdom's greater success in pushing down the motor vehicle death rate.
"Do I think that speeding is the single factor? Possibly not. Is speed one of the factors? Likely," she said.
Ferguson said the new study looks at the United States, as "a monolith." But she said, "the U.S. is really like 50 countries."
Ferguson said gridlock in the United Kingdom and wide-open highways in many regions of the United States are other factors to consider. A stronger study might have tried to pull out the differences that emerge in different parts of the country and their impact on road deaths, she said.