Speed Kills

And I’m not talking about meth.

Edward Humes has some pretty radical ideas for dealing with the U.S.’s out-of-control vehicle killings (boldface mine):

In terms of public health, the National Safety Council’s data on car crashes showed that in 2015, 38,300 people died and 4.4 million were seriously injured….

We have vehicles capable of achieving far higher speeds than the posted limits. Given this, people go too fast. And speeding, we know, is one of the major causes of fatal crashes.

A pedestrian struck by a vehicle going 40 miles an hour has a 10 percent chance of surviving, and one struck by a car at 20 m.p.h. has a 90 percent chance. So when we post a 40-mile maximum speed limit on a boulevard where pedestrians walk, we’re saying that in the event of a crash, a 90 percent mortality rate is acceptable….

We drive way too fast to survive collisions. The bottom line is that speeding is one of the major causes of fatal crashes.

…In the 1920s, The New York Times referred to what we now erroneously call “accidents” as “motor killings.” There was more outrage then.

At the time, there was a nationwide push to have speed governors placed on cars. These were mechanical devices that kept them from going at high speeds. That effort was pushed back by the car industry. It was never deployed in any substantial way.

…But even before that technology [driverless cars] is perfected, a version of those speed governors would help. Certainly, the capability exists right now. Cars already have speed governors in them: cruise control, which permits drivers to set the maximum speed a car should go.

If you link navigation apps which know the speed limit for any given road and add it to cruise control, it takes the decision out of the hands of the driver. You use basically off-the-shelf technology, slightly tweaked with some new software, and you have cars that can’t speed.

Unfortunately, speed regulators on cars are probably too much for people. After all, a significant fraction of the U.S. freaks out over light bulb regulations. But Humes is absolutely correct about one thing: we need to slow cars, especially in areas with lots of pedestrians and cyclists. There are structural solutions we can employ that make it harder (or impossible) to drive fast.

Until we’re serious about slowing cars down, we will continue to have two vehicle killings for every murder in the U.S.

Aside: In terms of body count, violent killings are half that of vehicular killings. In addition, violent killings are concentrated in very small areas (even within cities), meaning most people don’t face the threat of homicide in any meaningful way, especially compared to being killed by a vehicle. Yet our political discourse completely ignores vehicular killings and is fixated on homicides. One might suspect that something else is at play…

This entry was posted in Public Health, Transportation. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Speed Kills

  1. DMC says:

    And yet vehicle caused deaths are HALF what they were just 20 years ago. The cars themselves have gotten much safer, what with airbags, the 3rd brake light and many states having seatbelt laws. Of course if we could get more people taking mass transit….

  2. Bardiac says:

    Cars are safer for their drivers, but not for pedestrians; I think that’s one of the points Mike is making.

  3. AndrewD says:

    Here in the UK, we have 20mph zones around many schools where children may be at risk. We also have speed control engineering in many 30mph zones. including chicanes, and speed cushions(humps in the road). If cars cannot have controls fitted to slow them down, other means must be employed.

  4. anthrosciguy says:

    In terms of numbers compared with violent killings, I’d point out that the exposure to the likelihood of the two different things is wildly different. Compared to a likely chance of being violently attacked, there are an enormously larger number of people exposed to moving vehicles.

    And as has been pointed out, cars today are far safer for their occupants than they were in the past. I started driving in the 60s, and there are very few cars of that era I’d want to be in, compared to almost any car today, if I was going to have an accident (The Rover 2000 TC, late 60s Volvos, Saabs, and various Ferrari models). The problem for pedestrians and bicyclists is less a problem of vehicle design than speed (as you pointed out) and road/walking/biking space design (along with training for car drivers; driver’s licensing tests are ridiculously easy to pass).

  5. kaleberg says:

    I’m terrified in a car, but transportation has always had a lot of risk associated with it. When I was a kid, there were 50,000 auto related deaths each year and we had a lot fewer people, a lot fewer cars and people drove less. The current low death rate never ceases to surprise me. I did some quick searching and found:

    “As difficult as it may be to believe given their low speeds, horse-drawn vehicles were far deadlier than their modern counterparts. In New York in 1900, 200 persons were killed by horses and horse-drawn vehicles. This contrasts with 344 auto-related fatalities in New York in 2003; given the modern city ’s greater population, this means the fatality rate per capita in the horse era was roughly 75 percent higher than today. Data from Chicago show that in 1916 there were 16.9 horse-related fatalities for each 10,000 horse-drawn vehicles; this is nearly seven times the city’s fatality rate per auto in 1997”


    Granted, the author goes on to note that a big problem with horses as opposed to cars was that horses had minds of their own. Let’s hope the brains in autonomous vehicles are not modeled on horse brains.

Comments are closed.