Safety experts say there are historically three big killers on the road: drunken driving, not wearing a seatbelt, and speeding.
Public views have changed dramatically about seatbelts and driving drunk, but states are having a harder time changing attitudes about driving too fast, as anyone who’s ever zipped down I-5, I-90 or I-84 can attest.
Still, there is very little known about this ubiquitous bad habit or what to do about it.
Plenty of excuses
Most people probably wouldn't fess up to driving drunk to a random stranger. But speeding is a very different story.
People I met at a rest stop off I-90 in north Idaho readily admitted to speeding, and most said they generally match the pace of traffic.
But that’s one of many excuses Trooper Tom Shirey has heard before.
He lists some of them: “'It takes me a long time to get up the hill, I had to go to the bathroom, I'm running out of gas, had to get to an appointment, want to get home' … I haven't heard it all, but I've heard a lot.”
Shirey cruises down I-90 in eastern Washington in an unmarked silver Chevy Impala you wouldn’t know is a cop car until the lights come on. He’s part of the state patrol's Aggressive Driving Apprehension Team. It’s a unit charged with catching the worst of the speeders.
“We're in a 60 mile an hour zone right now," Shirey explains. "And people just go blow your doors off. In and out of traffic. They get up behind you, follow too close. And then they wave their fist at you as they go by because they think you're driving too slow when you're going the posted speed limit. I've had a couple people while I've been in this car flip me off.”
Shirey notices a woman talking on her cell phone and starts to call it in on his radio. But then fate smiles on that driver, because Shirey spots a bigger fish.
“Welllll, we're going to disregard the cell phone. Look at this guy in the Subaru," he says before calling it in.
Shirey paces the Subaru at 72 miles an hour, 12 miles over the speed limit.
“Did you see the way he came flying by us?" he asks.
Slogans, campaigns and studies
Despite the best efforts of troopers like Shirey, speeding has proven to be a stubborn public habit to break. In the Northwest, states have tried various slogans to get people to drive less aggressively. Oregonians might be familiar with the “Slow Down, It's the Law.” Idaho recently produced a television spot titled “Are You That Guy?”
But Christian Richard says so far, the campaigns haven’t worked. Richard is a senior scientist at the Battelle Seattle Research Center, where he studies driver behavior.
“In the last 10 years, there's been quite a bit of progress in terms of reducing fatalities and crashes due to things like not wearing seat belts or drinking and driving," he says. "But the number of fatalities related to speeding has essentially been unchanged.”
In some ways, Richard says speeding is just more complicated. In fact, he says, speeding by itself, well, may not even be that dangerous. But here’s the problem: if you’re speeding and something else goes wrong -- you hit a patch of ice, you glance at your cell phone -- well then, speeding can hugely reduce your margin of error.
That’s why researchers like Richard want to stop it. The question is how.
“There’s all sorts of different reasons why someone might speed and there’s really no silver bullet when it comes to getting people to slow down," he says.
Technology could finally produce some answers. A project funded by the National Academy of Sciences outfitted drivers around the country with a collection of GPS devices, sensors and cameras that tracked their driving habits. More than 700 of these guinea pigs were in the Seattle area. The project produced reams of raw data that will help researchers finally get a better picture of who speeds, for how long, under what conditions, and where they speed.
Bart Davis, the Republican state Senate majority leader in Idaho, can tell you the where: anywhere there’s a long stretch of open highway.
“I was driving on an interstate in the state of Utah and many of them were already at 80 mph and I thought, ‘My goodness, Idaho has similar interstates, why can't we be doing it?”
Davis has introduced a bill to raise the speed limit to 80 miles per hour on Idaho interstates, if transportation officials say it’s safe. And so far, it’s a popular bill.
Back on I-90 near Spokane, Trooper Tom Spirey returns to his car. He just issued a $175 ticket to a guy he caught doing 76 miles per hour in a 60 zone.
“Trying to make an appointment," Shirey says. "He goes, 'I am guilty, I apologize. I take full credit.'” Shirey says at least many people he catches speeding are willing to admit to it.