Rules of the Road

We have the technology to regulate speeding, but why aren’t we using it?

Catching speeding drivers from the sky

The Washington State Patrol Aviation Section uses a Cessna 206 equipped with specialized camera equipment to provide aerial traffic enforcement support on Interstate 90 on June 23-25, 2017.
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The Washington State Patrol Aviation Section uses a Cessna 206 equipped with specialized camera equipment to provide aerial traffic enforcement support on Interstate 90 on June 23-25, 2017.

Question: Why don’t governments impose a mandatory maximum speed regulator on all new cars? It could be limited to the maximum speed limit. The technology already exists and is cheap. It would make our roads safer, reduce congestion (traffic flow is smoother if all cars are traveling at roughly the same speed), reduce the high consumption of energy required to drive at high speeds and instead of setting radar traps on our highways, precious police resources could do other important duties.

Answer: You’re right that we have the technology, but having the ability to do something and having the will to do something can often be as far apart as a full bladder and the next rest stop.

Speeding is a real problem; from 2013 to 2017 speed was a factor in 47 percent of fatal crashes in Whatcom County. Speeding consistently competes with impairment for the number one factor in fatal crashes.

Since the impacts of speeding are so great, shouldn’t it be easy to mandate a maximum speed that a car can drive?

In one sense, that’s not going far enough. If we were to limit the speed of vehicles to 70 mph, the fastest speed limit in our state, we’d eliminate speeding on much of our interstate highway system.

But most of our traffic fatalities don’t occur on the interstate. County roads, state highways and city streets all have more than double the fatal crashes of interstate highways. Crashes on the interstate highways make up around 12 percent of total fatal crashes on all roads statewide.

A limited top speed would have only a small impact on speed-related fatalities.

You might respond by saying that limiting the top speed of vehicles is at least a good start. Or you could take it further. We have the technology to limit the speed of cars on every road. Your GPS system already knows the speed limit on every stretch of pavement that you drive; all we’d have to do is tell the car not to exceed it. Semi-autonomous cars already do this.

This solution is reasonable except for one problem: most people don’t like it. Even when hard limits aren’t in place, few drivers want that level of control exerted on them. A Pew Research Center study found that when an insurance company offered drivers a discount on insurance if they allowed their driving to be monitored for speed and location, only 37 percent found the offer acceptable.

If you’re a legislator elected to do the will of your constituents, limiting speed on cars doesn’t seem like something that will rally a lot of voters. Certainly lawmakers sometimes make unpopular decisions in the best interest of society as a whole, but you don’t stay elected long by being unpopular.

As someone who is immersed in the world of traffic safety (and sometimes the lack thereof), you can probably guess my bias. I’d be fine with driving a car that couldn’t exceed the speed limit. And I’d be even happier if your car couldn’t speed either.

But in an era where tech companies already track our moves and in the process sometimes compromise our privacy and safety, I can understand a resistance to also giving government similar access to tracking our lives. If the issues of privacy could be solved, I can’t think of a reason not to limit vehicle speeds unless, if we’re being honest, some people just want to be able to speed.

Sure, there are some logistics we’d have to sort out, but before we get to the details we have to decide what kind of limitations we’re willing to put on ourselves in the pursuit of safer travel.

For quite a few years we saw decreases in traffic fatalities; car engineering increased safety, seat belts became common practice, DUI laws and enforcement shifted cultural attitudes about impaired driving. But in recent years we’ve had increases, both in Washington and across the country, in fatal traffic crashes.

In order to reverse that unfortunate trend, we’re going to need to come up with new solutions. Is limiting vehicle speeds one of those solutions? I guess that’s up to us.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.


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