Life In The Fast Lane Essay, Research Paper
October 23, 1999
English 102 McCrady
Life in the Fast Lane
Humans in the twentieth century live in an era characterized by an unrelenting desire for speed. The ability to go faster and accomplish more often seems to be the option of choice. Everything from the information super highway to the interstate highway is dominated by this need for speed. Whether it is fast food or fast cars, more powerful search engines or automobile engines, the fact of the matter is people rarely stop to catch their breath. Ever since the wheel people have tried to get from point A to B in as little time as possible. This idea is evident every time someone turns the ignition of his/her automobile. Cars were designed with the ability to travel faster and reach destinations sooner, but now it seems that these conveniences have been stretched and abused to the maximum. The question at hand is not whether or not speeding exists, which it does, but rather is it a problem? In addition, what are the consequences and/or ramifications of speeding? The notion of fast is usually associated with better, but is this really the case? These questions will be discussed in this paper.
Speed sells. Many people don’t realize this, but automobile manufacturers do. In the November 1999 issue of Car and Driver there are over fifteen ads that advertise cars driving at speeds that are not reasonable or prudent to existing conditions. Some of these ads have small disclaimers at the bottom of the page, but many don’t. When a new model year car comes out, the majority of the manufacturers advertise more horsepower, which translates into more speed. There are also many people who, on their own, attempt to make their cars faster. This is very similar to what happened during the muscle car era of the 1960s. Instead of using big, American cars with eight cylinder engines, people are using small import cars. These cars are relatively cheap to purchase, and even easier to make dangerously fast. This fact has paid off big for after-market parts distributors and for magazine publishers. The parts distributors offer “bolt-on-performance” upgrades for the speed enthusiast to install on their own. Max Speed, Super Street, Turbo, and Sport Compact Car are just a few of the magazines that have exploited this new trend. This interest in speed upgrades has led to the installation of many local car clubs that trade speed tips and race on the weekends. One club local to Washington D.C. is Absolut Imports, whose name was derived from the alcohol of choice among the members, Absolut Vodka, which raises a red flag. Clubs such as this one participate in legal and illegal racing, generally known as “drag racing.” Legal drag racing occurs at sanctioned racetracks, where drivers can pay to see their cars at top speed. Illegal racing usually takes place on abandoned stretches of highway or airstrips. Illegal racing is exceedingly dangerous due to the high speeds and the lack of medical personnel. Not only is it dangerous, but it is also a criminal offense.
These clubs and magazines appeal mostly to males, who not coincidentally are also most likely to speed. In answer to the question, ”Who speeds most?” the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety responds:
“Studies in California have found that the rate of speeding violations per mile is at least three times as high for drivers 16-19 years old as it is for drivers aged thirty and over. At all ages, male drivers are more likely than female drivers to be involved in speed-related fatal crashes.”
This is not to say that only young males exceed speed limits, for individuals of all age and gender group’s speed. Regardless of who it is that is speeding, there are proponents of greater speed restrictions who believe that the speeding must stop.
Speed limit laws, which date to 1901, have been the responsibility of the states. During the oil shortage of 1973 congress pressured the states into adopting a maximum speed limit of 55 mph. The National Research Council attributed 4,000 fewer deaths to the lower speeds in 1974, compared with 1973. They also estimated there would be 500 more fatalities annually if they were to return to pre- 1974 speed limits. Speeds began to gradually increase on highways as concerns about fuel availability disappeared. In 1987, Congress allowed states to increase highway speed limits to sixty-five mph on an individual basis based on claims that the fifty-five mph law was too strict.
Many believe that there is a strong positive correlation between speed limits and highway deaths. To aid their argument, these individuals quote that the higher speed limits introduced in 24 states during late 1995 and 1996 resulted in increase motor vehicle deaths during 1996 and 1997. In 1997, 41,967 people were killed in automobile accidents, while in 1996 42,085 people died. Based on these studies, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates an increase in deaths on interstates and freeways of approximately 15 percent. Meanwhile, deaths didn’t increase at all on interstates and freeways in states where speed limits were not raised. “It’s clear from this study that the current round of speed limit increases on rural interstates in the 1980s is costing hundreds of lives a year,” says Insurance Institute For Highway Safety president Brian O’Neill. “This cost could go up in the future because research shows actual speeds continue to rise in the years following a speed limit change.” Advocates of lower speed limits assert that these increases are counteractive. “We know that when speed limits are raised,” O’Neil says, “drivers who exceeded the old speed limits will exceed the higher limits too, because people take note of the limits and then travel faster, at speeds at which they believe they won’t get a ticket.” With this logic, if the lawmakers believe that it is safe to drive sixty-five mph on a highway with a fifty-five M.P.H. speed limit, they should not increase the speed limit, for then drivers would go about seventy-five m.p.h.
Advocates of lower speed limits also assert that speeding reduces the time drivers have to avoid crashes and that it increases the likelihood of crashing and the severity of the crashes that occur. According to the NHSTA, speeding is one of the most prevalent reported factors associated with crashes. Speed is a factor in 31% of all fatal crashes, killing on average of 1,000 Americans every month. In 1995, more than 13,000 people died in speed related crashes. NHTSA estimates the economic cost to society of speed-related crashes to be more than $29 billion each year. Health care costs alone for the victims of these incidents are about $4 billion per year. Advocates of lower speed limits believe that these vast costs are not worth the added excitement or saved time of higher speeds.
Proponents of increased restrictions on speed argue that the performance of passive restraints such as airbags and safety belts is compromised in high-speed crashes. These safety devices have been engineered for maximum performance at collisions that occur at reasonable speeds. At higher speeds, the laws of physics ordain that momentum increases, since momentum is equal to velocity multiplied by the mass of the vehicle. Thus the force of impact is increased in a collision, and airbags and safety belts need a greater force to stop the human bodies involved in the crash. For example, due to the exponential nature of crashes, a frontal impact at 35 mph is one-third more violent than one at 30 mph. The increased momentum also affects preventive stopping distance, for vehicles travelling faster need a greater stopping distance. This is especially true for trucks, which are very massive.
However, there are those who refute the arguments of the anti-speed advocates, these individuals believe that high speeds do not kill. Advocates of higher speed limits claim that research on speed variations indicates that faster speeds are not hazardous. They believe the more important speed –related safety issue involves the proportion of vehicles traveling at very high speeds, not the portion violating the speed limit. In Maryland, which retained 55-mph limits on rural interstates until 1995, the proportion traveling faster than 70 mph remained virtually unchanged at 7 percent during 1988-93. This statistic shows that drivers will proceed at a speed that they deem safe, not what the state does.
Advocates of abolishing speed limits cite other countries that successfully do not enforce speed limits. Many of these countries have lower fatality rates on their roadways than the United States. An example of this is the Germany’s autobahn, a large highway with no speed limits. Many countries instead focus on greater driver training, which leads to safer roads. In these countries citizen have a graduated license program, and only the most skilled and cautious drivers receive license. This is asserted as an option for the future of American roads.
Some individuals who oppose low speed limits suggest alternative means of regulation. One such alternate mean is the regulation of momentum, which is the product of mass and velocity. “Momentum is a much more logical thing to regulate than speed. Momentum sums up the destructive potential of a moving vehicle,” says Dave Coleman. Momentum could be measured in pounds per mile per hour. In theory, this would limit larger, more destructive vehicles in their capacity to travel at high speeds, thus making the roads safe.
Research from the mid-1950s and similar studies show an increase in crash likelihood among drivers traveling slower than the average speed and a minimum of crashes at 5-10 mph above the average speed.
The United States is reluctant to abolish speed limits for numerous reasons. One of the most outstanding reasons is the lucrative business of issuing speeding tickets. These citations raise millions of dollars for local governments annually. Without these funds, it is likely that America would be faced with increased taxes. Many law enforcement officers have a quota of tickets to issue monthly. This leads to a lack of integrity in the ticketing process. Frequently, an officer under pressure to issue tickets wrongly targets motorists. It is also believed that law enforcement officers would be of greater use to society elsewhere, rather than staked out at speed traps.
The business of speeding tickets is also lucrative for automobile insurance companies, who capitalize from the damage to driving records. Each major auto insurance company has a statistician or two whose job is to make calculations about the drivers who insure with the company. They say that people with any type of traffic violations are a “high risk” insures. When you are given speeding ticket a certain amount of points are put on you’re driving record. Many times people who commute and drive long distances receive more tickets than people who drive less frequently do. This does not mean that they are a threat to other motorist. Those people should not be labeled as more likely to have an accident. They have the same chance as everyone else, only log more miles. If people accrue to many tickets there is a good chance that the state will revoke their license.8
Csaba Csere, the author of “The Steering Column,” a regular column in Car and Driver magazine, refutes the statistics that show an increase in highway fatalities on highways with increased speed limits. He asserts that
“In 1998, speed still didn’t kill” he claims-
The total number of miles Americans drive is constantly increasing (from 2144 billion in 1990 to more than 2600 billion last year, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles is the key statistic. This figure has been falling continually since the ‘20s, when it stood at more than 22 deaths per 100 million vehicle-miles. It has dropped from 2.08 in 1990 to 1.58 in 1999. Highway deaths did go up when speed limits were raised but overall deaths on all roadways stayed the same. That is because more people used the highway. The highway with higher speed limits attracts drivers from the slower roads. With more people traveling on this roads it is not surprising that there are more fatal accidents. When speed limits are raised police can access more time stopping reckless drivers, not just people exceeding the speed limit. Charles Lave, an economics professor at the University of California- Irvine, examined this phenomenon in a study in 1989. He found that raising highway speed limits allowed police to spend less time writing speeding tickets and more time apprehending drunk drivers and patrolling dangerous roads. The studies done by the IIHS also omitted several states in which traffic fatalities fell considerably. If those states were to be factored into the data, there would be almost no change at all in the rise of fatalities. Finally all speeding laws do some harm by providing the means for citizens to be fined, arrested, or otherwise restricted in their daily activities and commutes.