Why don't we care about speeding?
Of the dozens of speeding tickets that Greg P. earned during his first nine years of driving, none was because he was in a hurry.
Doing 80 to 90 mph in a 75 mph zone didn't seem unreasonable. And why not take advantage of the wide-open roads of Texas -- where speed limits can reach 85 mph -- by driving 95 or 100 mph?
"It's comfortable. It's a cruising speed for me," says Greg, who asked that his last name not be used.
Greg is hardly alone. "The public's attitude about speeding is enormously conflicted," notes the Governors Highway Safety Association's (GHSA) newly released survey of state laws and enforcement tactics. "Few advocates exist for speed reduction; speeding is a behavior that many people engage in routinely."
But traffic fatalities linked to speeding have gone up 7 percent since 2000, while fatal crashes by people not using seat belts have dropped 23 percent, and alcohol-impaired fatalities are down 3 percent, the report finds. Since the group's last survey, seven states have actually raised their speed limits.
Recognizing reality, the GHSA report calls for states to firmly deal with two issues where public support is substantial: enforcement of both aggressive driving laws and speed laws in school and work zones. The GHSA also wants federal safety officials to mount a high-visibility campaign like those that reduced deaths from drunken driving and failure to use seat belts, and to encourage the use of automated enforcement such as speed and red-light cameras.
But will the right drivers listen?
It's getting easier to speed
Since the last survey of highway safety offices in 2005, few states have done much to combat speeding, while seven states -- Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Vermont -- actually have increased speed limits.
Texas and Utah have the highest speed limits in the country: 85 mph in Texas and 80 mph in Utah on some rural highway segments. (See "What a big ticket does to your car insurance.")
At the same time, state budget cuts have trimmed back the number of officers available to enforce the laws, the GHSA says.
One state, Minnesota, made speeding less painful. Drivers passing on a two-lane road now can exceed the speed limit by 10 mph, and the state has adopted an administrative penalty option for speeding that keeps violations off the driver's motor vehicle record -- and away from impacting insurance premiums.
Ultimately, setting speed limits is often a political decision, says Barbara Harsha, executive director of the GHSA.
"There's just an apathy about speed limits," she says. "People think they don't apply to them and that it pertains to the other guy."
It's not surprising, then, that nearly two-thirds of motorists surveyed by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in 2010 said they felt pressure from other drivers to go even faster.
Who has the need for speed?
In 2010, about 31 percent of traffic fatalities stemmed from accidents classified as speed-related, the GHSA report says. That number has not changed appreciably in decades.
The source of the problem is young males -- specifically, young white males who live in rural areas. Drivers with those traits popped up again and again in the GHSA survey of speed-related crash data.
"They're just risk takers. They may not be as educated. [They] think they're invincible," says Harsha.
Teens and young men don't just speed -- they're aggressive as well. (A 1990s analysis of road-rage police reports found just 4 percent of aggressors were female.)
While virtually all traffic safety campaigns are directed at young males, they are among the most difficult groups to reach, the report says. The GHSA singles Maryland's "Smooth Operator" effort as a rare success story. It dealt out 9,000 citations a day to aggressive drivers and followed it up with a massive media campaign.
Could the problem be hype?
However, not everyone agrees that a serious speeding problem exists.
Characterizing a fatal accident as "speed related" is often a form of guesswork by investigators that doesn't always point to the cause of an accident, says John Bowman, communications director for the National Motorists Association, which helped repeal the 55 mph national speed law in 1995.
"I think the study has kind of overblown the subject, and brings up a problem that really doesn't exist," Bowman says. "Roads are becoming more safe, not less safe, and that is with higher speed limits."
For his part, Greg P. says he's driving slower now that he has a young son and a business to protect.
He says he's never lost his license for more than a few days and has ultimately paid fines for only about 10 of his tickets. Many times a judge gave him a second chance with probation, Greg says, or the trial dates were continued so many times the officers either forgot the details or didn't even show up in court. (See "Fight a car-insurance-busting ticket.")
Greg says he's never been dropped by his insurance company.
Insurers typically check motor vehicle records at renewal time. In general, speeding tickets don't affect your insurance rates until you have more than one, says CarInsurance.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner. After multiple tickets, she says, or if your license is suspended because of multiple tickets, then your insurance company will raise your rates -- if it continues to insure you at all.