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Science of the City: To save lives, get serious about addressing speeding

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Posted on: November 9, 2023

BY: PAUL RUFFINS

Paul Ruffins is a citizen scientist and professor of curiosity.

This fourth, and last, article in our series about traffic fatalities in Prince George’s County examines why technically easy solutions are so politically difficult. You can find parts one, two, and three here.

Between 2018 and 2022, the Zero Deaths Maryland Fatal Crash Dashboard, which tracks every traffic death in the state and its cause, reported that Prince George’s County had approximately 58% more crashes than Montgomery County (97,094 vs. 61,263), despite having about 100,000 fewer residents. Earlier articles in this series explained that Prince George’s County has more roads that combine high speeds with stoplights, along with fewer drivers and passengers using their seatbelts. 

But what turns 58% more crashes into 179% more traffic deaths (578 vs. 207)? It’s not people driving drunk or high. Montgomery County had 64% more crash-related deaths due to impairment (28 vs. 17). “The biggest problem is speed,” said the Rev. Robert Screen, who has spent years fighting traffic deaths on Indian Head Highway. Between December 2022 and March 2023, 58 drivers were clocked at over 100 mph on that route, with one muscle car hitting 170.  

 “Whether drivers are aggressive, distracted or drunk, speeding amplifies minor mistakes into injuries and fender benders into fatalities,” he said. “We just don’t take speeding seriously.”

One proof of this is that Maryland’s speeding laws are much weaker than those in neighboring states. In Virginia, going 20 mph over the speed limit, or over 80 mph anywhere, is considered reckless driving — a crime that can land you in jail. In Delaware, going over 90 mph is deemed reckless, while in Pennsylvania, 30 mph over the speed limit is flagged. But in Maryland, there is no rate of speed that is automatically considered a crime or considered reckless driving. 

According to Wayne Curtis, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Architecture and Planning, reducing speeding requires both changes in roadway engineering to calm traffic and increased law enforcement. “I am a strong fan of roundabouts and speed bumps,” Curtis said. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), properly designed roundabouts, also known as traffic circles, are much safer for motorists and pedestrians (though maybe not cyclists) than stoplight intersections, while handling the same volume of traffic. By forcing every car to slow down and turn, traffic circles reduce both the chances and the impact of crashes, particularly head-on and T-bone collisions, which are the deadliest.

 And speed bumps effectively reduce speeding while delaying emergency vehicles by only 10 seconds or less on average. Unfortunately, the Maryland State Highway Administration places many restrictions on where traffic-calming devices like speed bumps can be used, traditionally prioritizing speed over safety. After a March 2023 crash on Ritchie Marlboro Road in Upper Marlboro killed one high school student and critically injured another, the Prince George’s County Department of Public Works and Transportation expressed sorrow at the tragedy but stated, “As you know, as this roadway is classified as a collector roadway, speed humps or any physical traffic calming device installation could not be considered as a mitigation effort.” (Collectors, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, are major and minor roads that connect local roads and streets with arterials; they are designed to balance mobility with land access.) 

As Curtis noted, the last alternative is to find a way to increase enforcement. This is difficult at a time when police departments are understaffed and traffic stops have become increasingly problematic; many Black and minority drivers fear that getting pulled over could easily escalate into brutalities. And according to the University of  Illinois, Chicago, in most years, ordinary traffic accidents kill and injure more law enforcement officers than gunfire does. High-speed chases are so dangerous to police, pedestrians and innocent drivers that the Prince George’s County police and many other departments have severely limited their use. 

One possible solution to these concerns is automated enforcement — using cameras to catch people speeding or running red lights. Cameras have no ethnic, racial or gender biases and have been proven to reduce speeding and accidents. But once again, Maryland’s traffic laws impose only minimal fines. In Virginia, automated speeding tickets can reach $100. In Maryland, that same ticket would be $40, even if someone is going over twice the speed limit. Our state’s automated tickets further reduce their deterrent impact with bold lettering stating that if you pay the $40 fine, your violation won’t result in points and cannot be used to increase your insurance rates. Maryland could choose to be much tougher. In California and Oregon, red-light tickets carry points as well as fines. In Arizona, both red light and speeding camera tickets can lead to a license suspension and increased insurance rates.

Joseph Young, an IIHS spokesperson, points out that there are simple solutions for reducing speeding. “People who are convicted of drunken driving are often required to install an ignition interlock, so the car won’t start if they’ve been drinking,” Young said. “Well, the equipment to govern maximum speed is even simpler and has been used in trucking and fleet operations for years.” 

Young also feels that states could deter a lot of dangerous driving by not renewing a vehicle’s tags if an owner has unpaid moving violations from out of state, regardless of whether they were issued by an officer or a camera. Right now, neither Virginia, the District, nor Maryland has an effective mechanism for enforcing automated tickets on out-of-state vehicles. The District occasionally boots scofflaws who park on the street — but still has over $800 million in uncollected fines for moving violations.

Like Screen, Young believes that reducing speeding isn’t primarily a technical problem, but a very tough attitudinal and political problem which kills and injures thousands more people per year in the U.S. than in Europe. “Almost no one would ever tell a stranger that they frequently drive drunk,” Young said. “But in our surveys, a large percentage of drivers will honestly admit that they regularly exceed the speed limit. It’s almost like they feel there’s some American right to drive too fast, even though it risks other people’s lives.”

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