National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Federal Highway Administration

February 1997

Problem Statement

Travel at safe and reasonable speeds on highways promotes the nation's productivity. Most highways and motor vehicles are designed and built for safe operation at the speeds traveled by most motorists. Speeding -- exceeding posted limits or driving too fast for conditions -- involves many factors including public attitudes, personal behavior, vehicle performance, roadway characteristics, enforcement strategies, and speed zoning (a safe and reasonable limit for a given road section or zone). Nevertheless, speeding on the nation's roadways is a contributing factor in as many as one third of all fatal crashes. Fatal crashes are only a small part of the total safety picture. In addition, many people are injured in speed-related crashes. The economic cost to society of these crashes was estimated to be $27 billion per year in 1994.

Federal Policy on Speeding

Speeding is a significant threat to public safety and warrants priority attention. The Department of Transportation's policy on highway speeds is to provide guidance to State and local governments to set speed limits that maximize the efficient and rapid transportation of people and goods while eliminating the unnecessary risk of crashes due to unsafe speeds. This policy promotes the concept that Federal, State, and local governments should have balanced programs that use the most cost-effective strategies for decreasing crash risks from speeding. These strategies include: (1) ensuring that posted speed limits are reasonable and appropriate for conditions; (2) providing public information and education on the risks associated with speeding; (3) understanding who speeds, where, when, and why; (4) using a variety of techniques and technologies beyond enforcement for speed management; and (5) targeting enforcement where speeding presents the most serious hazard and accompanying it with public information and education.

Speed Management Program and Implementation

The following are the key elements of a balanced program to implement the speed policy at the Federal, State, and local levels.

1. Speed Limits

Speed limits should promote safe travel, and should be perceived by the public as safe and reasonable. If the public does not understand the consequences of speeding to themselves and others, they are less likely to adjust speeds for traffic and weather conditions, or to comply with posted speed limits. This can place serious strains on the limited resources that are available for speed enforcement and on the relationship between the police and the public. Voluntary compliance with speed limits can also be improved through greater use of speed management devices and techniques that can be built into the existing highway system, as well as incorporated in the Intelligent Transportation System.


2. Education, Public Information and Enforcement

State and local enforcement should focus on the types of drivers and situations where speeding has a significant impact on public safety. Speed enforcement must be complemented by focused public information and education campaigns. Research shows that compliance with, and support for, traffic laws can be increased through aggressive, targeted enforcement combined with a vigorous public information and education program. This approach has been successful in addressing impaired driving, occupant protection, red-light running, and commercial motor vehicle safety issues. Public information and education also contribute to public support for speed management by increasing the awareness of the consequences of speeding.


3. Research and Demonstration

An effective and efficient program to address speeding as a highway safety issue requires better definition and understanding of speeding and its management. It is important to identify any specific characteristics or traits that can be used to target drivers and situations where there is increased risk. Detailed information on why these drivers speed can be used to develop more effective countermeasures. Voluntary compliance with speed limits can also be improved through on-going development of new speed management technologies.