Rising Speed Limits Threaten Driver Safety; Professionals

As professional truck drivers, vending and OCS route drivers have a responsibility beyond the average motorist to drive defensively. This is simply due to the fact that most fatalities involving trucks are caused not by the truck driver, but by the motorist who may be operating recklessly or inattentively around a truck, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, university studies and other research.

The fact that motorists do not follow safe driving practices as well as professional drivers places the burden on you, the professional. This means you have to exercise caution in situations such as a car cutting in front of you, or an SUV whizzing by you, or a tailgating station wagon, said John Wislocki, information manager with the American Trucking Associations' Safety and Loss Prevention Management Council, located in Alexandria, Va.

Recent study underscores a growing nationwide problem

Wislocki said road conditions may be getting even riskier based on a recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based Governors Highway Safety Association. The GHSA survey of member jurisdictions detailed their efforts to control speeding by motorists. The report comes nearly 10 years after Congress repealed the National Maximum Speed Limit, which had required states to keep speed limits at a maximum of 65 mph in rural areas and 55 mph in urban areas.

According to GHSA Chair Lt. Colonel Jim Champagne, "In addressing the speeding problem, we are where we were 25 years ago with drunk driving: there is a serious problem, but we do not have an effective remedy."

Of the 50 GHSA jurisdictions that responded to the survey, 38 indicated a speed limit increase in their jurisdiction since 1994. Just as troubling is an analysis from the Arlington, Va.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety which reports that 31 states have raised speed limits to 70 mph or higher on some portion of their roadways.

Higher speed limits raise fatalities

A 1999 IIHS study found that deaths increased an estimated 15 percent on interstates and freeways in 24 states that raised speed limits after the repeal of the National Maximum Speed Limit.

"We should have experienced a significant decline in speeding-related fatalities given the tremendous gains in safety belt use coupled with the increasingly safe design of vehicles. However, it appears these benefits have been minimized by increasing speeds," Champagne said.

A call for safety education

Given the trends, Champagne indicated it's not surprising that speeding-related fatalities continue to represent a third of overall highway fatalities. "As a country, if we are going to reduce the carnage on our roadways, speeding must be given the same level of attention that has been given to occupant protection and impaired driving," he said.

The problem with speeding is not just the increased speed limits, but also the fact that the public feels comfortable driving above the posted limits, even when road conditions are less than ideal.

Of the 50 GHSA jurisdictions surveyed, 42 indicated there exists a "cushion" of 5 to 10 mph, not only in the minds of the public, but also in enforcement practice.

Homeland security supplants speeding

GHSA's survey found that its jurisdictions believe increased enforcement of speeding-related laws has become very difficult because of uncertainty in highway safety funding and decreased numbers of officers due to retirements, as well as an increased emphasis on homeland security issues.

One remedy to augment diminishing police enforcement is the use of automated enforcement, commonly known as "speed cameras." These systems combine radar or laser-measuring technology and video or photographic identification to automatically detect and record speed limit violations.

Technology to the rescue?

Despite the effectiveness of automated enforcement, GHSA's survey indicated that only six states and the District of Columbia have implemented speed camera programs. According to

Champagne, "Clearly, more of our jurisdictions need to consider using these tools as part of their enforcement effort."

Another area that requires additional focus is data collection. Of the 50 GHSA jurisdictions that responded to the survey, 48 collect speeding-related crash data, but only 31 jurisdictions have a statewide database to log speeding-related citation data. This makes it difficult to form undisputable conclusions about the frequency and effectiveness of enforcement efforts.

Champagne believes that despite grim statistics, there is hope. "While most states are struggling with the speeding issue, some GHSA jurisdictions have implemented innovative efforts to combat this problem." He cited Georgia and some of the other states in the Southeast region that have had success with their summer "H.E.A.T. (Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic)" campaigns.

Public awareness efforts pay off

These efforts combine massive corridor speeding-related enforcement along with paid advertisements warning the public about speeding. The Washington, D.C. area has also developed a highly visible "Smooth Operator" program which has increased attention to speeding in the area.

Outreach efforts are under way

ATA's Wislocki said the American Trucking Association created America's Road Team in 1986 to reach out to the trucking industry and the motoring public.

The Road Team is a national public outreach program led by a small group of professional truck drivers who have superior driving skills, remarkable safety records, and a strong desire to spread the word about safety on the highway.

Rising speed limits are a concern today, Wislocki said, but the trucking industry is doing its part in conjunction with government.

The Governors Highway Safety Association will soon make recommendations to enhance coordination of federal, state, local and private sector policies and programs as well as identify additional research and data needs.

Safe driving practices for route drivers

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the federal agency responsible for truck and motor coach safety on the nation's highways, offers some common sense tips for drivers to follow to reduce their chances of being involved in an accident. They include:

  1. Take care of yourself. Get plenty of rest before getting behind the wheel. Eat well and stay fit. Stay healthy and well rested, or don't drive!
  2. Pay attention to vehicle maintenance. Inspect your vehicle before each trip and check your brakes regularly. Learn how to inspect your brakes, identify safety defects, and get them repaired before risking your life and others on the highway.
  3. Be aware of your "No Zone." Other drivers may not be aware of the size of your truck's blind spots. Be vigilant in watching out for vehicles in the No-Zone. The No-Zone represents the danger areas, or blind spots, around trucks and buses where crashes are more likely to occur. One-third of all crashes between large trucks and cars take place in the No-Zone.
  4. Slow down in work zones. Watch out for highway construction. Stay alert. Work zone crashes are more likely to happen during the day. Almost one-third of fatal crashes in work zones involve large trucks. Take your time going through work zones and give yourself plenty of room.
  5. Keep your distance. Always leave enough space between you and the vehicle in front of you. If you hit someone from behind, you are typically considered "at fault," regardless of the situation. Large trucks require more stopping distances than other vehicles. Take advantage of your driving height, and anticipate braking situations.
  6. Fasten your seat belt. Buckle up for safety and control. A major cause of truck driver fatalities involves being ejected from the vehicle. Wearing seat belts is still the single most effective thing all drivers can do to save lives and reduce injures on our roadways.
  7. Always drive defensively. Avoid aggressive drivers. It's estimated that each year, two-thirds of all traffic fatalities are caused by aggressive driving behaviors. Keep your distance and maintain a safe speed. The only thing speed will increase is your chance for a crash.
  8. Be professional on the road. When possible, help stranded motorists; notify traffic safety agencies of crashes, unsafe drivers, unsafe roadway conditions, and other situations that can lead to crashes. Join a "Highway Watch" program if one is available in your state.

For more information, contact:
American Trucking Association, 703-838-1700; www.truckline.com
Governors Highway Safety Association, 202-789-0942; www.highwaysafety.org
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 703-247-1500; www.iihs.org