Is your speedometer making you drive faster?

Chris Kissell

Have you glanced down at your speedometer lately? Drivers old enough to remember the 1980s have witnessed an explosion in maximum speedometer levels over the past three decades.

At one time, speedometers topped out around 85 mph. Today, speedometers typically have a maximum that is close to double that – or even more.

speedometersCritics claim that higher speedometer limits should be taken with a grain of salt. These experts say most cars generally are not built to go over more than 110 mph, even if their speedometers say otherwise.

However, there is no denying that many of today's cars can go faster than their forebears. Between 1985 and 2005, average vehicle horsepower soared by 64 percent, according to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

One of the nation's most popular cars – the Honda Accord – saw horsepower more than double between 1981 and 2005.  

Have higher speedometer limits given drivers the green light to push harder on the accelerator?

In a statement, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) told that it "doesn’t have any research indicating that speeding behavior is impacted by speedometers."

Kristin Nevels, a spokeswoman for the IIHS, says her organization also has no research showing that higher maximum speeds on speedometers cause people to drive at higher rates.

Is your speedometer making you drive faster?

NHTSA also notes that it cannot say for sure that drivers are speeding more than they did in the past.

In 1995, Congress repealed the national maximum speed limit of 55 mph. As a consequence, states no longer are required to collect data about prevailing travel speeds and submit it to the government, according to NHTSA.

One thing experts can say, however, is that the surging horsepower in today's cars appears to have increased car insurance costs. According to IIHS data, adding just 1 horsepower per 100 pounds of vehicle weight boosts insurance losses among drivers ages 25 to 64 by:

  • 5 percent for collision coverage.
  • 5 percent for personal injury protection (which covers medical expenses).
  • 4 percent for bodily injury liability.
  • 1 percent for property damage liability.

And there is little doubt that speeding remains a life-threatening force on today's roads, according to John Ulczycki, vice president of strategic initiatives for the National Safety Council.

"Deaths from crashes involving speeding have been above 10,000 a year for several years," Ulczycki says.

Nearly one-third of all motor-vehicle deaths occurred in crashes where speeding was as factor, according to IIHS.

Men also are more likely to speed than women. For example, 24 percent of male drivers involved in fatal crashes were speeding, while that was true of just 15 percent of female drivers, according to a 2008 study by the NHTSA.

And younger male drivers were the speediest drivers of all, according to the NHTSA data. Thirty-seven percent of male drivers aged 15 to 20 who were killed in crashes were speeding at the time of the crash.

The number dropped to 22 percent of male drivers ages 35 to 44, and 16 percent of male drivers ages 45 to 54.

How to prevent speeding

So, what can be done to curb speeding?

Ulczycki says better law enforcement is the key to lightening lead foots across the nation.

"People speed because they can – because enforcement is inconsistent in many states, cities and towns," he says.

He says law enforcement that is highly visible is more likely to deter people from speeding. The use of traffic enforcement cameras – where a camera is mounted on a pole at an intersection and snaps a photo of drivers violating speed limits and other laws – also is effective, he says. 

Nevels agrees: "Research shows that automated enforcement not only reduces speeding, but reduces crashes," she says.

In addition, "Watch your speed" monitors that sit on the roadside and calculate how fast you are driving as you roll past tend to reduce driving speed – at least at the site of the monitor itself, and for a short distance thereafter, Nevels says.

Whatever solutions arise, do not expect them to come from the federal government.

In the NHTSA statement, the organization notes that its primary role is to reduce highway crashes, and the injuries and fatalities caused by crashes every day.

"But the decisions related to setting speed limits are reserved to the states and local jurisdictions," according to the NHTSA.

Why you should slow down

Don't let a beefed-up speedometer tempt you to push down harder on the accelerator, says Michael Barry, spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute.

"A single speeding ticket is not likely to impact what an individual pays for auto insurance," he says.

However, your rates could go up if the speeding incident resulted in a crash that in turn prompted the filing of an insurance claim, he says.

And multiple speeding tickets or speeding-related crashes are sure to send your rates higher eventually, he says.

"The better your driving record, the lower your premium," he says.

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