Speeding: Comprehensive Changes Needed to Save Lives

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

Speeding kills about the same number of Americans as drinking and driving, yet garners far less attention. We’ve included “Implement a Comprehensive Strategy to Eliminate Speeding-Related Crashes” on our 2021–2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements because we know that speeding significantly impacts safety on the country’s roads, and we think it’s past time for that to change.

About 100,000 people died between 2009 and 2018 because someone was driving faster than the speed limit, or faster than road conditions warranted. That’s around 9,000 to10,000 crash deaths per year, or nearly one in three crash deaths in the United States. Preliminary reports suggest that during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, speeding might have been even more prevalent in traffic deaths, despite a drop in vehicle miles traveled.

Speeding can lead to a loss of vehicle control. Faster speeds also increase the severity of injuries once a crash occurs. (If you’re having a hard time imagining this potential destruction, you can watch what happens in a speed-comparison crash test video produced by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.) This relationship holds true for all road users, but when vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists, are involved in a crash with a vehicle, their chances of being severely injured skyrocket as impact speeds increase. For a pedestrian, the risk of being severely injured goes from 10 percent at an impact speed of 16 mph to 25 percent at 23 mph, 50 percent at 31 mph, 75 percent at 39 mph, and 90 percent at 46 mph.

For drivers, passengers, and vulnerable road users alike, speeding kills.

What can be done?

Speeding deserves to be a nationally recognized road safety issue. Regulators must collaborate with traffic safety stakeholders to develop and implement an ongoing program to increase public awareness of speeding as a national traffic safety issue.

Further, we recognize that posted speed limits aren’t always based on real-world conditions. Present guidance says to set speed limits in speed zones within 5 mph of the 85th percentile speed of free-flowing traffic. But that guidance could lead to higher operating speeds, which would, in turn, result in an even higher 85th percentile speed, and on and on. What’s more, there’s no strong evidence that the 85th percentile speed decreases crash involvement rates; therefore, states should instead adopt an engineering study methodology that places less emphasis on the 85th percentile speed in favor of a more robust approach I that includes additional parameters, such as roadway geometry, crash statistics, and traffic volumes.

We believe that states should amend current laws to remove restrictions on the use of automated speed enforcement. Regulators should update and promote speed enforcement guidelines to reflect the latest enforcement technology and operating practices. For heavy vehicles, including trucks, buses, and motorcoaches, regulators should develop performance standards for advanced speed-limiting technology, such as variable speed limiters and intelligent speed adaptation devices, then require that all newly manufactured heavy vehicles be equipped with them.

At the individual level, drivers should follow the speed limit and slow down during bad weather, when a road is under repair, in poorly lit areas at night, and in other challenging driving conditions.

Finally, we should ​protect vulnerable road users through a Safe System approach—another Most Wanted List safety improvement. You can watch our May 20 roundtable on the Safe System approach on the NTSB YouTube channel.

We have yet to fully understand how the pandemic changed our driving habits as a nation; we have known for some time, however, that the faster a vehicle is going when it strikes something, the greater the energy expended in the crash, and the greater the resulting damage. Setting logical speed limits—and enforcing them—is something that can be done right now to save lives.

We hope that, as drivers return to the roads, regulators use this opportunity to reevaluate speed‑limit guidance, evaluate the effectiveness of current enforcement programs, and assess new speed-limiting technology that can improve safety for all road users.

Learn More

Implement a Comprehensive Strategy to Eliminate Speeding-Related Crashes

Safety Study: Reducing Speeding-Related Crashes Involving Passenger Vehicles | July 2017

Motorcoach Run-Off-the-Road and Collision with Vertical Highway Signpost, Interstate 95 Southbound, New York, NY | March 2011

Protect Vulnerable Road Users through a Safe System Approach

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