Experts can explain the spike in any number of ways. A good economy is keeping more motorists on the road. Cheap gas is fueling more road trips. Cellphone use behind the wheel is driving deadly distractions. Amid the range of explanations, however, lies a common culprit.
Speeding is a factor in about a third of all traffic fatalities. And something can be done to slow motorists down, says a new report released Tuesday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Speed cameras can yield long-term safety benefits, the report found.
IIHS researchers studied a speed-camera program in Montgomery County, VA, and found their presence reduced the likelihood of an incapacitating or fatal crash by 19.4 percent. Projected across the nation, the nonprofit organization says speed cameras could prevent roughly 21,000 incapacitating or fatal injuries each year.
"We hope this research will help energize the discussion around speed," said IIHS president Adrian Lund, who presented the findings Tuesday at the Governors Highway Safety Association annual meeting in Nashville. "We're all accustomed to seeing posted limits ignored, but it's a mistake to think nothing can be done about it. Automated enforcement is one of the tools we have at our disposal."
"When cameras are placed in areas with a demonstrated history of crashes and their locations are heavily publicized, people will support the programs. If the public feels the cameras are there only for revenue, the programs will be doomed."
Not everyone is thrilled about that prospect. A series of scandals, accusations of profiteering, and studies that cast doubt on the effectiveness of automated enforcement have all eroded the credibility of these systems. The National Motorists Association says photo radar often increases artificially low speed limits and strips motorists' due-process rights, among other problems.
As a result, the number of automated traffic-enforcement programs in the United States has dipped. In October 2012, there were 540 red-light camera programs; the number has fallen 18.1 percent to 442 today. Speed cameras have fared better. The number rose from 115 to 140 between 2012 and 2014, and the overall number of programs has plateaued at 138 today.
Though the well-documented troubles and mixed safety results, particularly with red-light cameras, have divided motorists, Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the GHSA, says automated enforcement can be effective at reducing deaths and fatalities if the programs are administered in a transparent way. "When cameras are placed in areas with a demonstrated history of crashes and their locations are heavily publicized, people will support the programs," he said. "If the public feels the cameras are there only for revenue, the programs will be doomed."
Results from Montgomery County bolster that argument. Law enforcement installed "speed camera corridor" signs in areas where the county's 56 speed cameras were deployed and motorists were highly aware of the program's existence – 96 percent knew of the speed-camera program when surveyed by IIHS. Sixty-two percent of those motorists said they supported the speed-camera program. Elsewhere, voters have almost unanimously voted against automated enforcement when programs have been put on election ballots.
Awareness in the Montgomery County camera corridors, in which camera's specific location could be moved within, helped change driver behavior, researchers concluded. Cameras flagged motorists who traveled 11 or 12 miles per hour above the posted speed limit – the threshold changed during the seven-year period IIHS studied – and the researchers found by the end of the period, a vehicle was 59 percent less likely to exceed the speed limit by more than 10 miles per hour at camera sites than at other Virginia control sites.
"Speed-camera corridors force drivers to watch their speed for the length of the road, instead of slamming on the brakes at a specific location and then speeding up again," said Anne McCartt, the institute's senior vice president for research and a co-author of the study.
Over the long term, those sorts of behavioral changes could help curb speeding-related traffic deaths. Although automated enforcement is "not a panacea," the IIHS report concluded communities should consider them one way to keep their roads safer. Cellphone distractions may be concerning, but speeding remains a common killer. "Despite the grim and consistent fatality numbers, speeding doesn't get the attention it deserves," Adkins said.