Excessive Speed Continues to Take Too Many Lives

By Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg 

Our recent investigation of the fatal Jan. 5, 2020, multivehicle crash near Mt. Pleasant Township, Pennsylvania, determined that excessive speed played a critical factor. This is a recurring theme in too many highway crash investigations. Between 1967 and 2022, the NTSB has investigated over 50 major crashes in which speed was cited as a safety issue, a cause of the crash, or a contributing factor. And that represents just the tip of the iceberg, given the NTSB selectively investigates highway crashes. We have made numerous safety recommendations prioritizing safety technology, legislation, and education to prevent speed-related crashes and save lives. 

​​​In this photo, the final rest positions of all vehicles involved in crash below the curve on westbound Pennsylvania Turnpike. (Photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Police. Graphic overlay by NTSB.)​

The Mt. Pleasant Township investigation and resulting recommendations point out the importance of technology, such as automated speed safety cameras, to limit highway crashes. Safety-focused legislation is also needed to develop performance standards for advanced speed-limiting technology in heavy vehicles. We need education initiatives to inform drivers about the circumstances of the Mt. Pleasant Township crash; the importance of following the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s guidance on engine retarders, “Motorcoach Brake Systems and Safety Technologies”; and the need to incorporate the guidance into their members’ training and manuals.

The changes proposed to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are applicable to all states as they strive to improve safety on their roads and highways: 

  • Allow speed safety cameras to be used outside of active work zones. (H-22-7)

Safety cameras are a reliable supplement to traditional enforcement. When properly implemented, they offer fair and equitable speeding enforcement. They should not, however, be used as a revenue source for non-safety-related projects, and drivers should be notified about when and where cameras are in use. Where photo enforcement has been used in construction and school zones, the numbers of crashes, injuries, and fatalities have all decreased markedly!

  • Implement the use of variable speed limit signs or other similar technology to adjust speeds in real-time based on weather and road conditions. (H-22-8)

Dynamic speed limits will help drivers adapt to changing road conditions. What’s suitable for dry pavement and light traffic is too fast for heavy traffic and contaminated road surfaces. Well-documented stopping distance tests on wet and icy roads have proved that point consistently. Reduced visibility is deadly, and there have been several massive crashes recently where drivers were unable to see stopped or slowed vehicles ahead of them. One-size speed limits do not fit all conditions or vehicles! 

  • Evaluate the applicability and use of the 85th percentile speed input variable in both of your tools, USLIMITS2 and the National Cooperative Highway Research Program 966, for setting appropriate speed limits to reduce serious and fatal injuries. (H-22-2) 

The 85th percentile is defined as “the speed at or below which 85 percent of all vehicles are observed to travel under free-flowing conditions past a monitored point.” This may not be the safest and most effective way to engineer safety into our roadways. Crash history and the presence of vulnerable road users should also be considered when setting speed limits.

For decades, excessive speed has been a factor in about one-third of all motor vehicle crashes. The NTSB added “Implement a Comprehensive Strategy to Eliminate Speeding-Related Crashes” to the Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements in 2019. Speeding increases the likelihood and severity of crashes. The physics of reaction time, stopping distance, and impact forces are sadly proven every single day—dozens of times.

State and federal government officials, safety advocates, and drivers have critical roles in preventing speed-related crashes. The safety recommendations outlined in the Mt. Pleasant Township crash investigation and in our 2017 safety study, Reducing Speeding-Related Crashes Involving Passenger Vehicles should be implemented in your state. Take action and slow down. Your life and the lives of your loved ones depend on it.

Check out the latest Behind-the-Scene @NTSB podcast episode for more information about the Mt. Pleasant Township, PA crash and investigation. Listen now: https://safetycompass.wordpress.com/?p=5820

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