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Will Virginia’s New Plan Slow Down Drivers?

Interstate 95 winds past Main Street Station in Richmond, Virginia. Photo: Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury

This article was first published at the Virginia Mercury and is republished with permission.

In the first half of last year, Americans drove 264.2 billion fewer miles than over the same timespan in 2019.

Fewer miles driven didn’t translate to fewer fatalities, though. In 2020, traffic deaths shot up 7.2 percent nationwide and speeding-related crashes increased 11 percent. Here in the commonwealth, that terrifying trend meant that 847 people died in car collisions last year with 406 of those fatalities — roughly 48 percent — directly attributable to excessive speeds.

To reduce the danger of driving, Virginia state officials are now planning a new, comprehensive, road-safety campaign to slow down drivers. However, controversies around equitable enforcement and the political unpopularity of speeding cameras means that no one can say at the moment what the final program will look like when details are debuted this fall.

A national template

The coming anti-speeding pilot program represents a multi-state, multi-organization effort in cooperation with Maryland, the Governors Highway Safety Association, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Road Safety Foundation. While Maryland will serve as the case study for rural anti-speeding interventions, Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles will be focusing on improvements that could be undertaken in urban areas. Using Norfolk as a control site, the commonwealth’s program will focus on speeding reduction on specific corridors and arterials in downtown Richmond.

The GHSA put forward the $100,000 in funding behind the project, but all of the analysis and reporting of the findings will be managed by the insurance institute in order to better understand speeding as a national crisis. The ultimate goal of the program is to develop a template that can be used by other states and communities across the country to reduce speeding deaths beyond the borders of the two participating states.

“Speeding is a neglected highway-safety issue,” said Russ Rader, senior vice president for communications at the IIHS. “It’s a factor in the deaths of more than 9,000 people each year in crashes. It’s fair to say that safety groups around the country have been frustrated that there hasn’t been a comprehensive effort to deal with speeding. The efforts have been mostly fits and starts of localized enforcement, but it hasn’t been tackled on a national level, so we wanted to launch a program to do that.”

The wraparound approach of the program that will include the three “Es” of traffic safety — enforcement, education and engineering — hopes to build on the success of the Click It or Ticket campaign that coincided with a national 20 percent increase in seat belt usage over a 16-year period. The idea of a coordinated anti-speeding campaign was born out of a GHSA conference in Charlottesville where advocates questioned why speeding wasn’t receiving the same attention as other, less deadly bad behaviors from drivers.

“Speed has been around as a leading cause of death in crashes for over 30 years now,” said Russ Martin, the GHSA’s senior director of policy and government relations. “Up until a few years ago we weren’t talking about speeding as much as we were about other issues that were actually causing fewer crashes. It’s one of those things people show some discomfort around discussing because everyone does it and it involves enforcement which can lead to other problems.”

Equitable enforcement

One of the leading hypotheses behind the jump in speeding deaths pins the problem on a drop in two factors that normally curb dangerous driving: congestion and enforcement. With vehicle miles traveled already surging ahead of pre-COVID levels, traffic may be back, but the increased awareness around the disproportionate violence Black Americans face at the hands of police still has some uneasy about renewed enforcement.

“Enforcement by police officers has been a very important part of the progress that we have made in traffic safety over the past 30 to 40 years when you think about seatbelts, drunk driving and teen driving safety, but there have been significant equity problems,” Rader said. “Europe depends much more heavily on automated speed camera enforcement, and they have much less of a problem with speeding. Technology is a way to make enforcement fair and equitable because you’re enforcing the law fairly upon all drivers and you’re doing it 24/7. Speed cameras should be expanded with that in mind.”

Although the case for increased automated speed enforcement seems sound, currently Virginia law bans speeding cameras outside of school and road work zones — exceptions that have only been passed by the General Assembly in the last two years. The historic lack of support for speeding cameras may mean that the eventual program may not include a single camera at all.

“We may very well be doing some things around automated enforcement, but we don’t know yet,” said John Saunders, DMV’s director of highway safety. “If we do, there shouldn’t be a ‘gotcha.’ We will educate the community to the utmost about what we are doing and where we are doing it, so there will be no surprises to the community. We have to do this in a cautious manner that gives the community that assurance that what we are doing is just for their safety.”

In the past, speeding cameras have lost the support of communities because they were deployed to generate municipal revenue without prioritizing the stated goal of slowing down drivers. If Virginia does deploy automated enforcement, Martin believes the commonwealth can do it right.

“We know that traffic enforcement — and especially high-visibility enforcement — is super effective, but we know we can’t ignore these lived experiences,” he said “We support the use of automated speeding enforcement, but we want to see programs that are fully data-driven and about safety, not about generating revenue. Automated enforcement can be equitable, but the devil is in the details. If we can get to that place where we can build high-quality programs, then we can build back the support for these programs against the controversy that has mired them for some time now.”

Safe systems

The controversy around enforcement and a renewed focus on equity from policymakers and the general public may mean that the final details of the program could take an entirely different tack toward reducing speeding: “We plan on taking a safe-systems approach,” Saunders said. “We need to do everything we can to protect the driver and other vulnerable road users because folks are always going to make mistakes.”

The safe-systems approach to traffic safety grew out of Scandinavia’s Vision Zero movement which prioritizes road engineering changes to eliminate opportunities for driver error and lessen the destruction crashes cause when they do occur. The solutions proposed under the auspices of Vision Zero tend to be low-tech, traffic calming measures like narrowing lane markings, adding bike lanes and lowering speed limits.

“A number of cities in Virginia and we at DMV’s highway-safety office have already taken that philosophy on,” said Saunders. “Americans have come to just accept that people are going to be killed in car crashes, but it’s not reasonable for us to think like that. I don’t know that I will see Vision Zero realized in my career, but we can get to a place where it is rare to see someone die in an auto crash. It’s not like it cannot be achieved — it’s being achieved in certain communities in Virginia every year.”

Regardless of whether the commonwealth can achieve a future with no traffic fatalities, researchers like Rader believe the increased priority being placed on combating speeding can only help improve road safety: “Distracted driving gets a lot of attention, but we don’t have many good tools at our disposal to stop distracted driving. In contrast, our toolboxes are full of proven solutions to reduce speeding but we don’t always use them. It’s like having a vaccine against an illness but letting it sit on a shelf.”

Wyatt Gordon is a correspondent for the Virginia Mercury via a grant from the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Piedmont Environmental Council. He was formerly Greater Greater Wash's Virginia correspondent. 

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