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|Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 66 · No. 4 > Managing Speed|
by Elizabeth Alicandri and Davey L. Warren
Interagency collaboration could curb speeding and save lives.
The twin challenges of the transportation system are to move traffic safely and efficiently. Although highways and motor vehicles are designed to operate safely at speeds traveled by most motorists, almost one in every three traffic fatalities in the United States is related to speeding, either involving exceeding the posted speed limit or driving too fast for conditions.
In 2000, more than 12,000 lives were lost in speeding-related crashes, and more than 700,000 people were injured. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that speeding-related crashes cost society $28 billion annually. That's $53,243 per minute, or almost $900 per second.
Because speeding is a complex problem involving many factors—personal behavior, vehicle performance, roadway characteristics, and enforcement strategies—the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) organized a multidisciplinary, multiagency team to tackle the problem. The USDOT Speed Management Team includes personnel from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), and NHTSA, representing backgrounds ranging from traffic engineering and enforcement to psychology and marketing.
According to Earl Hardy, a highway safety specialist and the speed management team coleader for NHTSA, approaching the problem of speeding in a coordinated fashion enables the team to develop the best solutions to combat speeding more effectively.
He says, "Through collaboration, we can approach the speeding issue holistically, gathering and analyzing data, setting appropriate speed limits, improving engineering and enforcement technologies, developing innovative strategies for speed enforcement, and educating practitioners, policymakers, and the public about effective solutions."
Public Policy and Outreach
From a public policy standpoint, an effective speed management policy needs to overcome a variety of obstacles in public perception. One of the most common speeding issues brought to the attention of policymakers is that citizens are concerned about other drivers speeding through their neighborhoods, yet most citizens have no idea what goes into setting appropriate speed limits.
Traffic engineers and law enforcement officials need to educate citizens on what speed limits can (and cannot) do in terms of improving safety on roadways. Posting a lower speed limit sign, for example, may help neighborhood residents feel safer, but it will not necessarily slow traffic. In fact, according to research conducted by FHWA in 1997, raising and lowering speed limits as much as 32 kilometers per hour, km/h (20 miles per hour, mph) has little or no effect on prevailing speeds.
Political pressures also factor into speed management policy. Elected officials must answer to constituents who are reluctant to see more speeding tickets issued in their communities or concerned about the use of unconventional police vehicles. In addition, citizens raise the privacy issue with regard to the use of photo radar to enforce speeding, calling for less government intrusion into people's lives. For photo radar enforcement to be acceptable to communities, officials need to focus attention on safety, rather than revenue enhancement.
Appropriately engineered speed limits are an essential element in highway safety. For speed limits to be effective, however, they must appear reasonable to most drivers and correctly reflect the maximum safe speed for prevailing conditions. Otherwise the legal system misallocates resources dealing with motorists who are technically violating the law but not engaged in any high-risk behavior. Thus, a prerequisite to an effective speed management program is the establishment of realistic speed limits that are consistent with the road environment.
FHWA's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices recommends that speed limits be set at the 85th percentile speed, or the speed at or below which 85 percent of all the vehicles travel when passing a given point on the road. Only 15 percent of vehicles are traveling above the 85th percentile speed—or speeding.
Setting speed limits based solely on the 85th percentile speed, however, does not account for other factors like roadside development, pedestrian activity, or accident experience. FHWA is developing a software program —USLIMITS—that will help safety engineers systematically and consistently account for these other factors in determining appropriate speed limits. Practitioners are beta testing USLIMITS to evaluate the reasonableness of the recommended speeds, and FHWA expects to release the software in early 2003.
Research indicates that the risk of crash involvement is lowest for motorists traveling near the average speed of traffic and is significantly higher for the fastest 2 to 5 percent. Setting speed limits at the 85th percentile speed of traffic, allowing for a tolerance of no more than 8 km/h (5 mph), would focus enforcement and adjudication on the occasional violators and high-risk drivers.
From the highway perspective, speed management begins with geometric design, which encompasses the driver and the vehicle. Design elements and roadside safety features alert drivers to the need to change speed and provide the basic cues that help drivers achieve a safe and comfortable speed.
Where communities desire lower speed limits, traffic-calming measures such as speed humps and curb extensions that narrow the road can help reduce speeds to the desired limit. Before implementing traffic-calming devices, however, designers should consult citizens and emergency service providers to ensure that such measures do not raise other safety issues.
Setting speeds in work zones is an ongoing issue. The lack of credibility of work zone speed limits is due to many factors, the most important of which is the fact that at different times of the day—based on traffic volume, lighting, weather, and other conditions—the appropriate safe speed changes, but the speed limit does not. When no roadwork is taking place, drivers often ignore reduced speed limits set to protect workers. Variable speed limits that change based on traffic conditions and the nature of the roadwork represent a promising technique to restore the credibility of speed limits in work zones.
Despite misconceptions among the driving public, police officers do not enforce speed limits simply because they want to write tickets. Enforcement is used to deter drivers from exceeding the posted speed limit. Three elements are critical to the deterrence process: (1) the behavior must be definable, understandable, and detectable by motorists, police, and the courts; (2) the effectiveness of deterrence depends on the perceived risk of apprehension—for the risk to be credible, drivers must believe that they have a good chance of being apprehended; and (3) the effectiveness of deterrence depends on the swiftness, certainty, and severity of the punishment.
Engineering decisions also can affect enforcement activity. For example, efforts to install high-occupancy vehicle lanes or add lanes to increase capacity effectively eliminate the areas traditionally used for law enforcement activities (i.e., the right and left shoulders). In States with prima facie speed limits, the challenge from the enforcement and adjudication perspective is that law enforcement officers have to be prepared to prove that the speed was unreasonable and imprudent for road conditions regardless of the posted speed limit.
For the sake of traffic safety and the justice system overall, the legal system must appear to be fair. To ensure compliance with speed limits, a balance must be achieved between enforcing penalties that actually deter speed violators and issuing punishments that represent only a minor economic inconvenience to the speeder, such as a small fine or dismissal upon completion of certain conditions. Fines or classes that drivers equate with a mere economic inconvenience have proved ineffective at deterring speed violators. On the other hand, fines and punishments considered too severe will not stand public scrutiny, especially if posted speed limits are not seen as fair and reasonable.
Judges dismiss speeding violations for many reasons, including inaccurate paperwork, offense cited under the wrong statute, plea bargain, officer not present for the trial, or the prosecutor's failure to meet the burden of proof. In States with prima facie limits, if the prosecutor proves that the motorist was exceeding the legal speed limit, then that is prima facie evidence that the driver was traveling at an unreasonable and unsafe speed. The driver has the burden to prove to the court that the speed was reasonable and safe. With absolute speed limits, whether the travel speed was reasonable and safe is irrelevant. Recommendations have been made to improve enforcement and adjudication by abolishing or reducing laws that permit the withholding of points in favor of license suspensions and/or higher fines.
Speed Management Workshops
In 2000, the USDOT Speed Management Team initiated a series of workshops and demonstration projects designed to bring together critical players in the speed management arena to discuss the issues that each profession faces and develop coordinated action plans. The workshops focus on the issues of setting rational speed limits and their enforcement. Central to these flagship activities is restoring credibility in speed setting through coordinated efforts in engineering, enforcement, and education.
Plenary sessions kick off each workshop with speakers sharing insights from each of the four critical areas in speed management—public policy and outreach, engineering, enforcement, and adjudication. The goal of the workshops is to expose participants to the array of issues that play into speed management strategies.
"Through the speed management workshops, we provide participants with the knowledge and skills that enable them to return to their local communities and develop speed management plans tailored to meet their specific needs," NHTSA's Earl Hardy says.
After the plenary sessions, participants in the USDOT workshops break into working groups to develop action plans outlining how to attack the speeding problem in their States. Among the most common issues raised during the workshops is the need to overcome institutional and jurisdictional barriers so that speed limits and enforcement strategies are seen as consistent by the public. Other issues include linking design speed and operating speeds more effectively; encouraging engineers and enforcement personnel to communicate and coordinate activities; and improving communication with the public on the importance of setting and enforcing safe speed limits.
The groups are specifically designed to ensure good cross sections of engineering, education, and enforcement personnel. Major Kathryn Doutt, director of the Bureau of Patrol of the Pennsylvania State Police, participated in the first speed management workshop in Washington, DC, in 2000. She joined several colleagues and representatives from State departments of transportation (DOTs), special interest groups, college researchers, psychologists, and others. Doutt applauds the value of sharing multidisciplinary perspectives.
"Engineers and policymakers need to get input from the police community, or they'll be missing a big piece of the picture," she says.
"I was surprised to learn that many of the stakeholders thought that enforcement was the only way to change behavior; yet the input of enforcement officials had not been sought previously. Other things, like road design and realistic speed limits, are equally important, as are driver attitudes."
Speed management workshops encourage traffic safety personnel to collaborate in identifying and implementing coordinated solutions to control speeding. At the same time, FHWA's speed management demonstration projects provide a structure and funding for those solutions.
Demonstration projects are underway in four States: Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Mississippi. In each case, researchers identify an extended length of road or a group of roads as the demonstration area and a similar road to serve as the control or comparison area. In the demonstration area, traffic safety personnel perform extensive speed studies for a minimum of 24 hours to determine the speed profiles on the roadways and then use the information to determine an appropriate speed for the road segments, relying heavily on the 85th percentile speed.
Massachusetts, like many States, is struggling with speed-related crashes. In 2000, speeding was a factor in 36 percent of traffic fatalities. The Governor's Highway Safety Bureau has conducted many Speedwatch programs—a combination of education and enforcement—to increase compliance with posted speed limits. According to Thomas McGovern, deputy director of the Governor's Highway Safety Bureau, the demonstration project advances current programming by considering the engineering of speed management.
"One of our primary objectives is to examine how speed limits are set and revise that process to better reflect the 85th percentile speeds of traffic and the design of roadways," McGovern says. "The more tools we have at our disposal to apply to the problem, the more likely we are to solve it."
As new speed limits are determined, traffic safety personnel implement two distinct outreach campaigns. The first, to the public, informs community members that new speed limits will be established and strictly enforced. The other outreach campaign targets the judiciary—judges and lawyers—to emphasize that law enforcement personnel will have low tolerances for speeding and will not be shy about issuing violations.
After the new speed limits are in place, the enforcement community kicks in with a strict enforcement campaign. Because the new speed limits are based on the actions of the majority of drivers, law enforcement officials can focus on the most flagrant violators. Throughout the campaign, traffic safety personnel gather speed, crash, program awareness, and other data from the demonstration and comparison sites to evaluate the effectiveness of the project and provide information for future strategies for setting speed limits.
With demonstration projects like this, plus ongoing workshops to develop solutions, speeders will slow down—and lives will definitely be saved.
Elizabeth Alicandri is a transportation specialist in FHWA's Office of Safety and the FHWA team leader of the USDOT speed management team. She spent more than 15 years working in and managing the Human Factors Laboratory in FHWA's Office of R&D. She has a B.S. in psychology from Georgetown University and an M.S. in transportation engineering from the University of Maryland.
Davey L. Warren is a highway research engineer in FHWA's Office of Safety Research where he is program manager for research on speed management. Since joining FHWA in 1973, he has been involved in traffic and safety research in such diverse areas as rural traffic simulation, signal operations, passing lanes, variable message signs, work zone traffic control, and rural intelligent transportation systems. He has a B.S. in civil engineering from North Carolina State University and an M.S. in transportation from the University of Maryland.
For more information about speed management workshops or demonstration projects, contact Elizabeth Alicandri at 202-366-6409, email@example.com, or Davey Warren at 202-493-3318, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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