Speeding is dangerous, and maybe it’s time cars are built to save us
One organization recommends speed-limiting technology in new vehicles. Will that ever become our reality?
“I feel the need for speed.” — Peter “Maverick” Mitchell, played by Tom Cruise in Top Gun (1986).
Sound familiar? Lots of people love a fast car. But speed increases the likelihood of injury accidents and fatalities... not to mention that every road in the U.S. has a speed limit, so exceeding that limit is actually breaking the law.
Why do they make cars that are capable of driving faster than the law allows?
There are several reasons why cars might be built to drive faster than they’re permitted by law:
- Market demand and competition: The automotive market is highly competitive, and manufacturers aim to appeal to consumers by offering cars with superior performance. The ability to accelerate quickly and reach high speeds is often associated with better overall performance, even if these speeds are not legally attainable on public roads.
- Global market considerations: Cars are typically produced for a global market. Different countries have different speed limits, and some have areas (like the German Autobahn) with no speed limits on certain roads. Thus, cars must be versatile enough to be attractive in various markets.
- Engine efficiency: Cars are more efficient and perform better at a range of speeds. By designing an engine that can go faster than the speed limit, manufacturers ensure that the car operates efficiently and reliably at legal speeds. Running an engine below its maximum capacity often leads to better longevity and fuel efficiency.
- Safety and emergency situations: Higher-performance vehicles can accelerate quickly, which can be crucial in certain emergency situations, such as evading a collision. Additionally, the engineering required for high-speed performance often results in better handling, braking and safety features.
- Prestige and brand image: Some car manufacturers build their brand image around performance and speed. High-top speeds can be a selling point for sports cars and luxury vehicles, emphasizing power and engineering excellence.
- Racing and track use: Many high-performance cars are designed with racing or track use in mind, where higher speeds are legal and encouraged. Owners of these cars might rarely drive them at their top speed, but the capability to do so is often a key aspect of the car's appeal.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says a five percent increase in average speed leads to a 10 percent increase in injury accidents and a 20 percent increase in fatal crashes. In other words, for every 10 miles per hour of increased speed, the risk of dying in a crash doubles.
Why is speeding dangerous?
You have two major limitations when you speed: Your brain and your vehicle.
When you’re speeding, you have less time to react to a hazard to avoid a crash. Your brain has to notice a dangerous condition and then tell your body to respond — and we’re only human. Even the best driver and most reactive person can only respond as their brain is signaled.
There’s also less distance in which you can bring the vehicle to a stop and reduced effectiveness of road safety equipment like guardrails, medians, and other types of barriers. This includes your own vehicle’s equipment like airbags, seat belts, and a strong frame. The more forceful the impact, the less protective these features will be.
NHTSB recommends maximum speeds in vehicles
Now, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommends that new vehicles are equipped with technology that would make speeding difficult or impossible. This could be through intelligent speed assistance technology, which can use a combination of GPS and sign recognition to prevent a vehicle from exceeding the speed limit.
The impetus for this recommendation was a Las Vegas crash in 2022 that killed nine people—including four children—when a car speeding at more than 100 miles per hour hit a minivan.
What is Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA)?
Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA) technology is a system implemented in vehicles to help drivers adhere to the speed limits. It's a safety feature that aims to reduce the risk of speeding-related accidents.
ISA includes these features:
Speed limit detection: ISA systems can detect the current speed limit in various ways. The most common methods include using GPS data combined with digital road map information and recognizing road signs through cameras. Some systems use a combination of these methods for accuracy.
Driver alerts: When the vehicle exceeds the speed limit, the ISA system alerts the driver. This alert can be visual, auditory, or haptic (such as a vibration in the steering wheel or seat).
Speed control: Depending on the design, some ISA systems can actively control the vehicle's speed. They can automatically reduce the engine's power or gently apply the brakes to ensure the vehicle does not exceed the speed limit. However, in most cases, the driver can override this system, for example, by pressing the accelerator pedal more firmly.
Customization and settings: Many ISA systems allow drivers to adjust settings according to their preferences. This can include turning the system off, adjusting the tolerance level above the speed limit before the system activates, or changing the type of alert.
Benefits: The primary benefit of ISA is increased road safety, as speeding is a significant factor in road accidents. It can also help drivers avoid speeding tickets and reduce fuel consumption, as driving at constant and legal speeds tends to be more fuel-efficient.
Regulatory context: In some regions, there is a push to make ISA technology mandatory in new vehicles. For instance, the European Union has plans to require ISA systems in new cars as a part of broader road safety measures.
Challenges and limitations: The effectiveness of ISA depends on the accuracy of speed limit data and the system's ability to correctly interpret road signs. Additionally, driver acceptance and the ability to override the system are important considerations for practical and emergency situations.
What’s the likelihood that the recommendation will come to fruition?
Automobile manufacturers are reportedly lukewarm on the possibility of incorporating ISA technology into new vehicles. The agency continues to review public comments. Some agencies, like the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, would prefer to focus on education and awareness of drivers rather than technology.
But other experts who work in transportation policy and society believe that we’ve encouraged people to abide by speed limits for decades... which means education and awareness are not effective means of controlling speeding. David Zipper, visiting fellow at the Harvard University Kennedy School says there’s no reason for anyone to drive more than 20 miles per hour above the speed limit, and doing so leads to avoidable dangers.
Still, studies indicate that speeding causes about 30% of road fatalities, which means that preventing speeding could reduce the number of fatalities by tens of thousands of people each year, and reduce injuries by hundreds of thousands.
Will it happen? We don’t know yet. But if you were involved in an accident—speed-related or otherwise—you can contact a personal injury lawyer to see what’s the best legal course of action to seek compensation.