NMA E-Newsletter #348: Bogus Statistics Hide Real Problems and Solutions

Proponents of aggressive speed enforcement routinely trot out the old saw that speeding causes one-third of all traffic fatalities. Predictably, this dubious assertion showed up in the bogus IIHS speed camera report we deconstructed in last week’s newsletter.

We say dubious because there is ample evidence to show that speed is a contributing factor in only a small percentage of highway fatalities and that other, often overlooked factors play a more prominent role.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) considers a crash to be speeding-related “if the driver was charged with a speeding-related offense or if an officer indicated that racing, driving too fast for conditions, or exceeding the posted speed limit was a contributing factor in the crash.”

This definition is more specific than previous versions but still leaves much to interpretation. Accident statistics are compiled from police reports in which officers must often make assumptions about accident causes without actually having witnessed the accident. We should also note that accident statistics distinguish between traffic fatalities and fatal accidents, but according to NHTSA, speed is a contributing factor in about one-third of fatal accidents as well.

However, if you look at crash data collected by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV), you find something very different. DHSMV collects information on all auto accidents in the state and provides a detailed breakout of various contributing factors.

According to DHSMV, “Exceeded Stated Speed Limit” was one of up to three possible contributing factors, but not necessarily the primary cause, in only 4.2 percent of fatal crashes from 2004-2013, and “Exceeded Safe Speed Limit” was a factor in only 6.1 percent. Total them up and you find, quite conservatively we might add, that only about 10 percent of all fatal crashes in Florida over that ten-year period had anything to do with speed.

So, why the big discrepancy between the national numbers and the Florida numbers? Maybe Florida accident investigators exercise more discretion before simply checking the speed box on an accident form. We know that different agencies/authorities define their terms differently. DHSMV defines a Fatal Traffic Crash as a traffic crash “that results in one or more fatalities within thirty days of occurrence.” NHTSA uses something similar, but the National Safety Council, for example, counts deaths that occur within one year of the accident whether that accident occurred in traffic or in a parking lot or even in someone’s driveway.

In Florida’s case, it’s instructive to look at contributing accident factors even more prevalent than speeding. For example, “Careless Driving” contributed to 20-25 percent of fatal accidents over that same 10-year period, and “Failed/Yield Right-of-Way” contributed to approximately 10-15 percent. DHSMV defines Careless Driving as failure to operate a vehicle “in a careful and prudent manner, having regard for width, grade, curves, corners, traffic, and all other circumstances, so as not to endanger the life, limb, or property of any person.”

The prevalence of careless driving and failure-to-yield violations stems from a lack of proper driver training. That means that up to 40 percent of highway fatalities in Florida could, and should, be addressed through improved driver education—not through more speed traps or more red-light cameras.

Why not more driver education? Because it’s not a money-maker. In fact, it would cost, but wouldn’t the dividend of safer roads be worth it in the long run?

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