Lots Of Speeders, But States Have Few Answers On How To Slow Them Down
By Jessica Robinson
Safety experts say there are historically three big killers on the road: drunken driving, not wearing a seatbelt, and speeding. Public views have changed dramatically about seatbelts and driving drunk. But states are having a harder time changing attitudes about driving too fast, as anyone who’s ever zipped down I-5/I-90/I-84 can atest. There's still very little known about this ubiquitous bad habit or what to do about it.
Most people probably wouldn't fess up to driving drunk to a random stranger. But speeding on the other hand. … I took this informal poll at a rest stop off I-90 in north Idaho.
Jessica: “Do you ever speed?”
Danny Alfson: “Yep.”
Jessica: “Do you ever speed?”
Denise Iff: “M’yeah.”
Jessica: “So do you ever speed?”
Mike Byrnes: ‘Uh, yes.”
Danny Alfson: “I don’t excessively speed, but …”
Denise Iff: “I get bored I guess is basically it. I’m trying to get home.”
Mike Byrnes: “Sometimes when you’re on the freeway, you know, you do have to go fast.”
Danny Alfson: “Were you just following me because I was probably doing 80 on the freeway because I had to go to the bathroom, hahaha.”
And then there’s this guy. He’s visiting from Calgary, Alberta. You'd think he’d be an exception. He's from Canada, afterall ...
Harold Eurchuck: “Do I exceed the speed limit? Very often.”
Now, most of the people I met said they generally match the pace of traffic. But that’s one of many excuses Trooper Tom Shirey has heard before.
Tom Shirey: “It takes me a long time to get up the hill, I had to go to the bathroom, I'm running out of gas, had to get to an appointment, want to get home … I haven't heard it all, but I've heard a lot.”
Shirey cruises down I-90 in eastern Washington in an unmarked silver Chevy Impala you wouldn’t know is a cop car until the lights come on. He’s part of the state patrol's Aggressive Driving Apprehension Team. It’s a unit charged with catching the worst of the speeders.
Tom Shirey: “We're in a 60 mile an hour zone right now. And people just go blow your doors off. In and out of traffic. They get up behind you, follow too close. And then they wave their fist at you as they go by because they think you're driving too slow when you're going the posted speed limit. I've had a couple people while I've been in this car flip me off.”
Photo: Trooper Tom Shirey works for the Washington State Patrol's Aggressive Driver Apprehension Team in the Spokane area. Photo by Jessica Robinson.
Shirey notices a woman talking on her cell phone and starts to call it in on his radio. But then fate smiles on that driver, because Shirey spots a bigger fish.
Shirey: “Welllll, we're going to disregard the cell phone. Look at this guy in the Subaru.”
Shirey paces the Subaru at 72 miles an hour, 12 miles over the speed limit.
Shirey: “Did you see the way he came flying by us?”
Shirey turns his lights on.
Despite the best efforts of troopers like Shirey, speeding has proven to be a stubborn public habit to break. In the Northwest, states have tried various slogans to get people to drive less aggressively. Oregonians might be familiar with the “Slow Down, It's the Law.” Idaho recently produced a television spot titled “Are You That Guy?” It shows a man in a coffee shop pushing by a family and cutting in line …
PSA: “Hey, slow down … You don't act like this in real life … why would you do it behind the wheel?”
But Christian Richard says so far, the campaigns haven’t worked. Richard is a senior scientist at the Battelle Seattle Research Center, where he studies driver behavior.
Christian Richard: “In the last 10 years, there's been quite a bit of progress in terms of reducing fatalities and crashes due to things like not wearing seat belts or drinking and driving. But the number of fatalities related to speeding has essentially been unchanged.”
In some ways, Richard says speeding is just more complicated. In fact, he says, speeding by itself, well, may not even be that dangerous. But here’s the problem: if you’re speeding and something else goes wrong -- you hit a patch of ice, you glance at your cell phone -- well then, speeding can hugely reduce your margin of error. That’s why researchers like Richard want to stop it. The question is how.
Christian Richard: “There’s all sorts of different reasons why someone might speed and there’s really no silver bullet when it comes to getting people to slow down.”
Technology could finally produce some answers. A project funded by the National Academy of Sciences outfitted drivers around the country with a collection of GPS devices, sensors and cameras that tracked their driving habits. More than 700 of these guinea pigs were in the Seattle area. The project produced reams of raw data that will help researchers finally get a better picture of who speeds, for how long, under what conditions, and where they speed.
Bart Davis can tell you the where: anywhere there’s a long stretch of open highway. He’s the Republican state Senate majority leader in Idaho.
Bart Davis: “I was driving on an interstate in the state of Utah and many of them were already at 80 mph and I thought, ‘My goodness, Idaho has similar interstates, why can't we be doing it?”
Davis has introduced a bill to raise the speed limit to 80 miles an hour on Idaho interstates, if transportation officials say it’s safe. And so far, it’s a popular bill.
Back on I-90 near Spokane, Trooper Tom Spirey returns to his car. He just issued a $175 ticket to a guy he caught doing 76 miles per hour in a 60 zone.
Tom Spirey: “Trying to make an appointment. He goes, 'I am guilty, I apologize. I take full credit.' He puts his hands out like this, and I go what does that mean and he says, 'I'm guilty.'”
Spirey says at least many people he catches speeding are willing to admit to it.
Idaho’s “Are You That Guy” ad:
Strategic Highway Research Program (Academy of Sciences funded program)