National Study Calls for Overhaul of Outdated Approach to Deadly Speed Epidemic on U.S. Roadways

by Kathleen Ferrier | August 15, 2017 | in News

Vision Zero Cities Urge Action, Allowing Greater Local Control Over Speed

The National Transportation Safety Board released a study today underscoring the deadly problem of speed in the U.S. and urging action to save lives. The study calls the problem of speed underestimated and underappreciated, and explicitly emphasizes the need for reform of outdated practices and policies, including allowing greater local control of managing speed.

Read the NTSB Speed Study.

Vision Zero communities across the nation lauded the study’s findings and urged action. Today, local roads bear the brunt of traffic deaths – three times as many as  highways – but cities are barred or discouraged from using proven speed-management strategies by outdated policies and standards at the state and federal levels.

“People in cities are disproportionately impacted by outdated thinking about how we manage speed,” said Leah Shahum, founder and director of the Vision Zero Network. “Children, seniors, people of color, low-income residents, and people walking and bicycling bear the brunt of this often-overlooked public health and safety crisis that claims the lives of as many Americans as drunk driving.”

Read Vision Zero Network’s Media Statement in Response to the NTSB Speed Study.

The NTSB study serves as a wake-up call for government at all levels, as it identifies a dangerous lack of attention and action toward a problem related to 10,000 deaths on U.S. roadways each year.

Study recommendations lauded by Vision Zero leaders include:

  • Modernize speed-setting standards that are outdated and unproven, in order to account for all road users, not just those driving cars;
  • States and localities should authorize the use of automated speed enforcement, which is proven to be effective in managing speed, improving safety;
  • Incentivize state and local speed management activities, and increase federal attention, leadership and funding of speed as a national safety priority; and
  • Incorporate the safe system approach for urban roads to strengthen protection for vulnerable road users.

“Clearly, local communities need the authority to use proven strategies to slow speeds and save lives,” said Shahum. “We applaud NTSB for calling attention to this deadly problem and for urging action to prioritize safety over speed by updating practices toward setting speed limits, enforcement, and designing roadways for safe speeds.”

Speed Management is a Fundamental Tenet of Vision Zero

Managing speed is a fundamental tenet of Vision Zero, a safe system approach to traffic safety that is gaining ground in communities across the nation. Vision Zero acknowledges that traffic deaths are preventable, and that this is a public health issue that calls for a systems-level, prevention-based approach. It is an interdisciplinary approach, coalescing diverse stakeholders to address a complex problem. And, Vision Zero is a data-driven approach that combines the power of data with human experience and an ethical responsibility to keep people safe.

The Vision Zero Network works with cities across the nation who have committed to Vision Zero and are working to transform their approach to prioritize safety over speed. Unfortunately, many local policymakers’ hands are tied by outdated and ineffective standards and practices. The NTSB study calls out these ineffective historic policies and calls on states and federal agencies to allow greater local control of speed management strategies, including setting speed limits with consideration of safety for people walking and biking and use of automated speed enforcement.

Key Study Findings

Of particular note in the Study’s findings:

  • Speeding is one of the most common causes of crashes in the U.S. And even so, inconsistent reporting has lead to an underestimation of the full scope of the problem.
  • Speeding has few negative social consequences associated with it, and it does not have a leader campaigning to increase public awareness about the issue at the national level. Society underappreciates the risks of speeding, and the resulting complacency among drivers has led to speeding becoming a common behavior.
  • The relationship between speed and crash involvement is complex. In contrast, the relationship between speed and injury severity is direct: Excessive speed both increases the likelihood of a crash, and makes crashes more deadly when they occur.
  • Speed cameras are proven to slow speed, save lives. Yet, only 14 states and Washington, DC currently authorize use of Automated Speed Enforcement (ASE). NTSB concludes the lack of state-enabling legislation, and restrictions on the use of ASE have led to underuse of this effective solution. The study urges states to instate enabling legislation and remove restrictions to expand ASE use.
  • Common speed setting practices may not be valid and result in unintended consequences.  NTSB concludes the original research between speed and safety which purported that the safest travel speed is the 85th percentile speed is dated research and may not be valid. And, the common practice of raising the speed limit to match the 85th percentile speed may lead to higher operating speeds, and hence a higher 85th percentile speed, generating an undesirable cycle of speed escalation and reduced safety. The NTSB Study recommends a safe systems approach to setting speed limits, which factors in crash history and the presence of people walking and bicycling.
  • Research has found that lowering speed limits can lead to sustained traveling speed reductions and crash reductions in urban areas. Yet, transportation officials often find this safety measure difficult to implement because state transportation department policies emphasize the use of the 85th percentile speed.
  • The growth of Vision Zero in the U.S. reflects the emergence of the safe system approach in traffic safety, a holistic approach that places the responsibility for crash prevention not only on individual road users’ behavior but also on the system designers, including policymakers, road engineers, law enforcement, and others who influence the systems.

We know that when it comes to advancing Vision Zero, speed matters most, and local communities have been stepping up to fill a leadership void on this issue. NTSB’s study comes at a time when cities are exhibiting greater political will to to manage speed for the sake of safety. Now they need the support at the state and federal level.

We know that we cannot prevent all traffic crashes, but we can manage speeds so that crashes are less severe and survivable. A top priority for the Vision Zero Network is elevating awareness of and action toward managing speed for the sake of safety. We want to lift up the positive work happening in Vision Zero cities and eliminate the barriers to safe mobility for all.

Read more about the Vision Zero Network’s response of the NTSB Speed Study, including examples of Vision Zero cities successfully implementing speed management techniques and saving lives, and reactions from other leaders across the nation here.

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