The speeding majority knows the danger.
Like drinking and driving, speeding is often a premeditated act. Risk is calculated and taken, and sometimes catastrophes result.
While impairment or inattention can be responsible for speeding, a recent survey of American motorists showed that nearly three-quarters admit they speed at least occasionally.
Deaths due to drinking and driving have declined steadily in the last decade thanks to tough new laws and attitudes, federal statistics show. No such progress has been made in reducing speeding — a major category of traffic deaths and injuries.
Despite the risks, Americans seem to be speeding as much as ever, experts agree.
The speeding culture doesn’t hide. It is reflected in automotive advertising and slogans and movies such as “2 Fast 2 Furious.”
“I love it,” said Shane Poole, a 31-year-old Harley-Davidson rider from Mesa, waiting to pay a speeding ticket at Gilbert Municipal Court last month. “I’m going to go out with a smile on my face.”
More moderate drivers also speed, and a ticket can often bring out a touch of indignation.
“I don't speed,” said Todd Eames, 34, a Gilbert resident also at the court. Eames decided to fight his ticket for traveling 59 mph in a 45 mph zone in his pickup truck.
“I was going the speed of all the other traffic, and (the police officer) picked me out of the group,” Eames said. “The street was more like a thoroughfare — there should be a higher speed limit.”
On the freeway at times, speeding can almost be seen as self-defense. Almost.
“This court does not accept ‘flow of traffic’ as a defense,” said Scottsdale City Court Presiding Judge Monte B. Morgan.
Morgan and other Scottsdale judges are among the East Valley’s prime practitioners of a get-tougher attitude about speeding, motivated in part by extremely high speeds seen on a section of Loop 101 that runs through their city. Morgan said he routinely sentences speeders to use up his “precious jail resources.”
“Anyone driving 100 mph in Scottsdale without meritorious justification will be facing jail time,” he said.
Hard-line drinking-and-driving laws passed by the Legislature ensure anyone convicted of DUI must spend at least one day in jail. The new “extreme” DUI category for blood-alcohol content of 0.15 percent or higher puts even first-time offenders in jail for 10 days.
Tim Hurd, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said there is “no argument there's been a social change in driving” when it comes to alcohol use. However, more work needs to be done to slow down speeders, he said.
“It’s a horrendous problem for society,” Hurd said. “I don’t know if we have the answer.” NHTSA statistics show speeding as a contributing factor in 30 percent of fatal collisions in 2001. More than a third of those speeding drivers were drunk.
Last year in Maricopa County, 39 percent of 89,959 drivers whose errors led to collisions were either exceeding the speed limit or simply going too fast for road conditions, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation.
The next highest category of driver error was failure to yield to another driver's right of way, which made up 22 percent of the at-fault drivers' collisions.
With some exceptions, no set numbers define illegal speeding in Arizona. Posted speed limits are in some ways merely suggestions. The crime or civil violation occurs when a motorist exceeds a “reasonable and prudent” speed for existing conditions, a judgment usually made by a police officer.
Mandatory sentencing for speeders has never been seriously considered by lawmakers, and not all East Valley justices of the peace or city judges take the same hard line as Morgan.
“I’ve never heard of anyone that went to jail for a speeding ticket,” said Mesa Presiding Judge Walter Switzer.
Local justice of the peace courts and East Valley city courts did not have statistics available on jail sentencings for speeding.
The typical penalties for speeding still center on fines and penalty points that can boost insurance rates or result in a driver’s license suspension. The fines can be substantial for criminal speed violations, which include exceeding the posted limit by more than 20 mph, going more than 85 mph or speeding in a school zone. Switzer mentioned a recent case in Mesa in which a driver who said he was late for school was caught going 92 mph in a 45 mph zone and was fined $941.
For new drivers under 18 years of age, the penalty includes being accompanied by a parent or guardian to court.
The ultimate price of speeding is apparent in collisions.
“It comes down to basic physics,” said Tempe police officer Mitch Lanoue, one of the city’s accident reconstructionists. “As the speeds get higher, there’s more probability of injuries and death.”
For one thing, speeding increases the stopping distance of the vehicle — and thus the likelihood of hitting something. Lanoue said the general formula applicable to most cars is that it takes at least 1.47 feet to stop for every 1 mph in speed.
At 55 mph, that’s about 80 feet. Adding in the time it takes to react to a hazard, it can takes well over 200 feet to stop at 55 mph.
Lanoue also works with formulas that deal with the “crush value” for different vehicle makes and models. Modern passenger vehicles are safer and the value of seat belts and air bags cannot be overstated. At high speeds, however, the vehicle can only absorb so much force before the passenger compartment is compromised.
Jim Bratcher, now an emergency medical support coordinator for the Mesa Fire Department, spent 10 years in the Valley working with various air-ambulance services. Some of the worst carnage he’s seen resulted from high-speed collisions: “Complete crush injuries, the patient is crushed between the steering wheel and the seat, decapitations, arm and leg amputations, impaled objects completely through the torso.”
Even if all the vehicle's safety features work correctly and the body makes no direct contact with anything other than a seat belt or air bag, the sudden change of direction in a high-speed collision causes internal organs to compress or rupture. Bratcher said his experience makes him cringe during certain car commercials.
“The sleeker it looks, the faster it looks like it goes, the more attractive it is,” he said.
Clearly, a built-in hypocrisy exists in automobiles and motorcycles made to travel at mind-blowing speeds. Peppy acceleration is one thing. But why else would someone buy a 2003 Ford Mustang Mach 1 — capable of exceeding 150 mph with a 4.6 liter V8 engine — except to occasionally break the law?
Switzer notes that lawmakers could propose action ranging from eliminating speed limits to forcing auto manufacturers to produce cars that only go 5 mph. He said he believes current laws are just about right.
“There's a certain amount of risk people are willing to take,” he said. “You've got to find a balance. Ultimately, it's up to the people.”