The president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety lamented a trend of states raising highway speed limits and cited institute data showing higher road fatality and injury rates as a result during a recent speech.
Adrian Lund, the institute's president, said this trend costs lives, during a presentation to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Lund's speech also placed a spotlight on driver assistance technology and the life-saving impact of state laws requiring safety belt use, alcohol ignition interlocks for DUI offenders, and helmets for motorcyclists.
"Research shows that when speed limits are raised, speeds go up and so do fatal crashes," Lund said. "Crashes are more likely because it takes longer for a vehicle to stop or slow down. Collisions at high speeds are more deadly because crash energy increases exponentially as speeds go up."
Lund, president of both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute, made his presentation at GHSA’s annual meeting on Sept. 1. This year’s conference, held Aug. 29-Sept. 2 in Nashville, was titled, “Drunk, Drugged & Distracted – Reaching High-Risk Drivers.” The GHSA is a nonprofit group representing state and territorial highway safety offices. Some of its members, in other words, are the people tasked with implementing those higher speed limits.
Lund also urged widespread deployment of speed-camera programs to improve enforcement of existing speed limits. Only 138 jurisdictions in the U.S. now have automated speed enforcement. But a newly released IIHS study reached a surprising conclusion: If all U.S. communities had speed-camera programs like the one that IIHS studied in Maryland’s Montgomery County, more than 21,000 fatal or incapacitating injuries would have been prevented in 2013.
Of the nearly 10,000 crash fatalities in 2013, 29 percent involved exceeding the speed limit. “Speeding makes crashes more likely and more likely to be deadly,” Lund said.
But the study demonstrates how effective a speed-camera program can be in changing driver behavior when the driving public is made aware of its presence, Lund said. (To view a video about the study's findings, click on the photo or link below the headline.)
Speed cameras were introduced in Montgomery County in 2007. By 2014, the county had 56 fixed cameras, 30 portable cameras, and six mobile speed vans. The cameras were positioned on residential streets with speed limits of 35 mph or less and in school zones.
Success came quickly. Just six months after the program’s launch, the proportion of drivers traveling at least 10 miles over the speed limit had fallen on streets with the cameras.
Seven years later, the program is still working. Cameras have reduced by 59 percent the likelihood of a driver exceeding the speed limit by more than 10 mph, compared with similar roads in two nearby Virginia counties that don't have speed cameras, the new study found.
The researchers also examined crashes on camera-eligible roads in Montgomery County, relative to comparison roads in Virginia. They found that the camera program resulted in a 19-percent reduction in the likelihood that a crash would involve a fatality or an incapacitating injury, as reported by a police officer on the scene.
The study connects the dots to show that speed cameras save lives, Lund said.
Although cameras alone are effective, Montgomery County also found a way to deploy them so that they have an even bigger impact. In 2012, the county introduced speed-camera corridors. Enforcement is focused on long segments of roads instead of specific locations. County workers regularly move the cameras to different spots on those roads, so drivers don’t become familiar with their exact locations.
The corridor approach led to further safety gains, reducing the likelihood of a crash involving fatal or incapacitating injury an additional 30 percent beyond the use of cameras alone, the researchers found.
Overall, the county’s camera program in its current form – including the use of corridors and a minor enforcement change that took effect in 2009 – reduces fatal or incapacitating injuries by 39 percent on residential roads with speed limits of 25-35 mph, the researchers said. The estimate of 21,000 fatal or incapacitating injuries that cameras could prevent nationwide is based on that reduction.
Lund acknowledged that speed-camera programs in general are controversial, sometimes triggering accusations of Big Brother-like surveillance. This resistance can pose political hurdles for safety advocates who support automated speed-limit enforcement.
A total of 62 percent of drivers surveyed in Montgomery County said they favored speed cameras on residential streets, according to IIHS research. Supporters even include some drivers who have been issued speeding tickets as a result of the program.
Also controversial is whether raising speed limits is ever a good idea. In June, for example, the speed limit was raised from 65 to 70 mph on about 810 miles of interstates and highways in Wisconsin. Similarly, in July the speed limit also increased to 70 mph on some highways in north Texas.
In contrast to IIHS research, proponents of such changes argue that they aren’t compromising traffic safety.
In fact, during a July interview with NBCDFW 5 News, Texas Department of Transportation-Fort Worth District spokesperson Val Lopez said the Texas speed-limit increase improves safety because it's more in line with the actual pace of traffic.
“If you have big variability in speeds between the slowest and the fastest driver, you actually have a less safe environment,” Lopez said. “So the more consistent the speed of the travelers is, the better off you are.”