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The surprisingly not so doomed effort to force US drivers to stop speeding

Intelligent speed assistance, which prevents drivers from speeding, is gaining public acceptance, according to a surprising new survey.

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The surprisingly not so doomed effort to force US drivers to stop speeding
The surprisingly not so doomed effort to force US drivers to stop speeding

California Senator Scott Wiener is used to pushback when he proposes laws aimed at reining in reckless drivers and improving road safety in his car-dependent state. But even he was caught off guard when, earlier this year, he introduced a new bill requiring a speed “governor” on all new cars sold in the state. The opposition from drivers was so fierce that he had to rewrite the proposal to only require weaker versions of the technology.

“There were people who loved it, people who hated it, people who were mad at me, spouses who were arguing with each other about it,” Wiener said in an interview. “It was an interesting situation. There’s a certain cultural embrace of being able to drive your car however you want to drive your car.”

Speeding is part of our cultural identity. Automakers frequently advertise new cars tearing through empty cities or weaving through traffic well above safe speeds. Movies and television shows frequently push these boundaries further. And social media further glorifies lawbreaking by providing a platform for speedsters. It all perpetuates the idea that speeding is not only safe but an American right.

“There’s a certain cultural embrace of being able to drive your car however you want to drive your car.”

Yet speeding is one of the most deadly things you can do in a vehicle. In 2023, more than 40,000 people died in traffic accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data released in April of this year. That’s down about 3.6 percent from 2022, when crashes accounted for nearly 43,000 deaths. The previous year was even worse, with speeding fatalities reaching a 14-year high. 

A study from 2020, showed that at speeds above 42mph, there’s a much higher incidence of serious injury and a higher risk of death for vehicle occupants. According to 2021 crash test data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, at 56mph and above, the driver’s compartment in most modern vehicles showed significant damage, and crash test dummies registered severe injuries to the neck and lower legs. 

“Driver’s behavior is the overwhelming cause of traffic crashes,” Jonathan Adkins, CEO of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “We’re driving too fast or drinking, we’re not wearing our seatbelt. We’re distracted by our cell phones. It’s all those behaviors that lead to the vast majority of crashes.”

Salvation could come from technology like intelligent speed assistance (ISA) systems, but there’s a lot of nuance. These systems use cameras, radar, and lidar in conjunction with GPS data to detect both the speed of your vehicle and “read” the speed limit signs on the road. 

In most modern vehicles, these systems are “passive” in that they don’t physically slow a speeding vehicle. A notification may pop up if you’re going more than a few miles per hour over the speed limit, but it won’t physically limit your ability to speed. Active ISA systems will physically slow your vehicle to keep you at the speed limit. Some use tactile responses, like pushing the accelerator back into your foot, while others actively limit the engine power to keep you at the speed limit. These active systems can be turned on and off by the driver. 

“Driver’s behavior is the overwhelming cause of traffic crashes.”

The EU has been at the forefront of ISA, and as of July of this year, all new vehicles will be required to have the passive form of this technology. The US is well behind Europe’s regulations, but many are trying to change that. NHTSA has been working on studies and proposals for some form of ISA mandate, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has a proposal out for limiters on commercial vehicles. Local officials in California and New York have proposed laws to require passive ISA systems in all new cars. 

While conflicts around speed limiters are not new, they have certainly become more deeply ingrained, thanks in part to the covid-19 pandemic and political division. According to Adkins, speeding got worse when everyone was forced to stay home. “The people that were out, were speeding, they were way more aggressive because they knew they had the space, and they knew they could get away with it,” he said.  

Local governments set the speed limits on state and local roads, while the federal government is responsible for setting speed limits on interstate highways. In the last few years, some states have raised the speed limits in the service of driver convenience, with 41 states permitting 70mph or more on some routes. Texas has the fastest speed limit on State Highway 130, a toll road that bypasses Austin, with a limit of 85mph. 

While Americans love the freedom to drive where they want, as fast as they want, a study released today from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that consumers may be more open to technology like ISA than previously thought. 

According to Ian Reagan, a senior research scientist at the institute who designed the survey, more than 60 percent of the 1,800 drivers who participated said they would be open to some form of passive ISA system in new cars.

Active ISA systems will physically slow your vehicle to keep you at the speed limit

“Acceptability is key,” Reagan said. “There’s a lot of data in the study that suggests that there are a number of options for designers that would allow them to implement systems that are accepted by drivers.” 

Even more surprising was that 50 percent of those surveyed said they’d be open to active ISA, including tech that makes the accelerator pedal harder to press or automatically restricts speed. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety data notes that drivers would have the option to turn any active ISA system on and off as they see fit, making the technology only useful if it’s accepted and utilized by drivers. 

While this is a small bright spot when it comes to potentially reducing speed-related accidents on US roads, there is still a long way to go. After all, it took nearly 50 years of advocacy from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving to stigmatize driving under the influence. And it took nearly that long for drivers to get on board with wearing their seatbelts. “I think we’ll get there,” Adkins said, “but it’s going to take some time, and we have to do this thoughtfully.” 

ISA technology is also only one part of the solution. Even more accidents are caused by distracted drivers using their cellphones, and road design plays a significant role in speeding and accidents. The legislation in California, should it pass the Assembly, could significantly change the playing field for ISA technology since the state is the largest new car market in the country. 

“The bill does not stop you from speeding, but you should at least be alerted,” Wiener said. “We know that, yes, there are people who intentionally drive very fast, but there are a lot of people who don’t, and they don’t even realize it. So this technology is not going to get everyone to slow down, but if it gets a quarter or a third or a half of people to slow down, that will save many, many lives.”

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