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Even speeders back speed laws, finds new survey

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While millions of Americans routinely admit to driving above the speed limit, nearly half of all motorists say speeding is a problem and the vast majority – including many chronic speeders – believe “everyone should obey the speed limits because it’s the law, according to a new national survey.

Despite increasing efforts to crack down on speeding, federal data suggest that it remains responsible for as much as a third of the traffic fatalities on roads each year, or nearly 10,000 lives annually, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has released results of its third “National Survey of Speeding Attitudes and Behavior.”

“The need for speed should never trump the need for safe and responsible driving,” David Strickland, the outgoing NHTSA administrator, said in a statement. “Motorists who drive at excessive speeds put themselves and others at an increased risk of being involved in a crash and possibly of being injured or killed.”

The study, which relied on telephone interviews involving more than 6,000 U.S. households in 2011, found Americans hold a paradoxical attitude on speeding.  It found that a significant percentage of Americans routinely drive at or over the speed limit – something most motorists likely can confirm anecdotally on almost any American freeway.

[Related: America’s 10 most dangerous roads]

A full one in five of those surveyed admitted that when behind the wheel, “I try to get where I am going as fast as I can.”  And nearly one in six felt that “driving over the speed limit is not dangerous for skilled drivers.”

Other highlights of the study include the fact that:

• A full four out of five motorists believe it’s actually easier to avoid a crash by driving at or near the speed limit; while
• A full 91% agreed with the statement, “Everyone should obey the speed limits because it’s the law;”
• And 48% said efforts need to be made to reduce speeding;
• About a quarter of the motorists polled said they either speed intentionally or because they don’t really pay attention to how fast they are going.

At the same time, the survey found a dip among both those who said they enjoyed driving fast and those who felt speeding increased awareness. In the first National Survey of Speeding Attitudes, conducted in 1997, 40% said they enjoyed the feeling of driving fast, while that slipped to 34% in the 2002 survey and just 27% in the latest poll.  Whether that’s because of the risks posted by increased traffic law enforcement wasn’t indicated.

[Related: 700-hp Hennessey Corvette Stingray hits 200 Mph on a Texas toll road]

Young motorists made up a disproportionate share of those included in the survey because data show they are both more likely to drive fast and to be involved in crashes.  Not only did those aged 16 to 20 admit to speeding more often than other groups, but 11% acknowledged having been in at least one speeding-related crash during the previous five years.  For the overall population, the average was just 4%.

According to federal safety regulators, speeding contributed to crashes that claimed the lives of 123,804 Americans during the decade leading up to the latest survey, with an annual economic impact of about $40 billion.

Skeptics routinely question the assumptions behind such claims, however, noting that with motorists on many U.S. freeways routinely exceeding speed limits it can be easy to blame excess speed in a crash that might, in fact, have been triggered by anything from distracted driving to poor vehicle maintenance or even such common violations as the failure to use a turn signal.

Critics also counter that enforcement of speed limits have become over-accentuated because it provides an easy way for police to issue tickets that, in turn, provide revenue for cash-strapped communities.
They also note that despite concerns raised about higher vehicle speeds, U.S. highway deaths have fallen by a third in the decades since Congress relaxed the laws restricting speed limits long limited nationally to just 55 mph. After a slight surge in 2012, deaths declined 4.2% during the first half of 2013, according to NHTSA, which estimated that for the full year, fatalities will be down by 40% compared to the peak of 54,589 in 1972.

But federal regulators remain convinced that speeding kills.

“We all have places we need to go, but it’s never the right decision to put ourselves, our families and others in harm’s way to get there faster,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement released along with the new survey. “This is another reminder, as the busy holiday season approaches, to obey speed limits, reduce speed in inclement weather conditions and allow plenty of time to arrive safely.”

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