It is a conspicuous fact that speeding is a big problem for U.S. drivers. Research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) determined that speeding has been involved in approximately one-third of all motor vehicle fatalities for the past two decades. And according to the National Safety Council (NSC), 2020 saw the highest vehicle death rate in 13 years, up nearly 25% from the previous year, a particularly alarming statistic based on the fact that far fewer miles were driven overall.
So what can be done to combat a dilemma that only seems to be continually worsening? Outside-of-the-box thinking has produced some highly innovative solutions to fill in the gaps where traditional methods have been inadequate. Let’s look at some of the current techniques used to detect speeding, and strategies that have been implemented to prevent speeding from happening.
There are multiple methods currently in use by law enforcement officers to determine the speed a car is moving. If a police officer is able to “catch” a driver speeding, that driver may be ticketed and fined to discourage future incidences of speeding. Each state is different in its handling of speeding laws, and factors including speed limits, penalties for speeding, and legal methods of identifying speed are based on decision-making at the state government level. The following methods are employed by police officers to catch speeders, although not all these techniques are legal in every state.
- Radar. The speed guns one often associates with police cars parked on the sides of roads usually make use of radar technology to assess speed. This involves bouncing radio waves off the surface of a moving object (your car) and analyzing them.
- VASCAR. “Visual Average Speed Computer and Recorder” works by dividing the distance a vehicle travels by the time it took to travel that distance.
- Traffic Cameras. Anyone who has received a speeding ticket in the mail knows that cameras, often fixed to traffic lights, can be an efficient way of pinpointing cars traveling over the posted speed limit.
- Pacing. In one of the simplest ways of detecting speeding, a police car follows another vehicle and verifies speed using their car’s own speedometer.
- Laser Detectors. Laser detectors are a newer technology operating similarly to a radar gun, only in this case using a narrower, more precise laser beam for measurement.
- Aircraft. Although less common, “Speed limit enforced by aircraft” signs indicate that a speeding driver can lawfully be targeted and ticketed by a police airplane or helicopter.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is as aptly applied to today’s speeding crisis as it was to the problem of preventable home fires in Benjamin Franklin’s day. When a driver speeds and causes a fatal accident, the consequences are irreversible.
One way policymakers, city planners, law enforcement, and local government bodies are working toward speeding prevention is through a set of often-subtle techniques collectively referred to as “traffic calming.” The Institute of Traffic Engineers (ITE) describes traffic calming as a combination of mostly physical measures that help to reduce negative driver behaviors. The top traffic calming objective is to achieve slow speeds for motor vehicles. The measures listed below are implemented in many cities around the world to shape driver behavior toward slower, more thoughtful, and more aware driving.
- Speed Bumps. A traditional approach to slowing traffic is through the use of speed bumps, humps, tables, cushions, and similar raised road structures which force drivers to decelerate.
- Roundabouts. A circular intersection, usually called a roundabout or traffic circle, is a device to slow and manage traffic flow in relatively low-volume traffic areas. Statues, gardens, and fountains inside the circle can also augment a city’s aesthetic value.
- “Your Speed” Signs. Also called radar signs, feedback signs, or dynamic speed display signs (DSDS), these devices detect and indicate to approaching drivers the speed their vehicle is traveling. Several studies, including one conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M in partnership with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), show the signs to have a significant speed-reducing effect in temporary applications.
- Road Diets. “Road diets” are an approach to traffic calming described by the S. Department of Transportation as a reduction in the width or number of vehicular travel lanes to make more space for other uses, like bike and pedestrian lanes.
- Chicanes. A chicane is a winding curve designed, rather than occurring naturally, in a road. Many cities have seen success in slowing traffic by simply building snakier roads.
- Road Materials. A 2019 study done on vehicles in Philadelphia, PA determined that paving streets with asphalt, granite block, and brick materials was an effective traffic calming strategy.
- Parked Police Cars. Sometimes the presence of a police vehicle is enough to make drivers think twice about exceeding the posted speed limit. One study found a decrease in percentage of speeding vehicles from 72% to 41% after the placement of an empty police car.
- Gateways. A gateway-type visual reminder utilizing signs, portals, arches, and curb extensions can alter the mindset of a driver and alert them that they are entering a slower-speed driving zone.
- Refuge Islands. A refuge island, pedestrian island, or median island is another traffic calming technique which gives people crossing the street a protected area to pause. The sight of people on foot, the narrowing of the vehicle path, and the addition of signs and markers help to both protect pedestrians and discourage cars from speeding.
Most Creative Strategies
Over the past several years, there has been a trend of looking to unconventional means to solve the problems caused by high-volume rivers of traffic racing at extreme speeds through peopled cities. Some may be more useful than others, but the strategies listed below were all designed by creative minds across the globe with the purpose of slowing vehicles to save lives.
- Picturesque Landscaping. Careful, creative landscape architecture can be surprisingly successful in calming inner-city traffic. Strategically-placed flora can visually narrow roadways (subconsciously prompting drivers to slow down), create a barrier between cars and pedestrians, and establish a more pleasant environment in which people are more apt to walk, bike, or drive leisurely.
- Optical Illusions. Road markings aren’t always what they seem. One of the most famous examples is the 3D crosswalk which appears to float above the road in places like Ísafjörður, Iceland. Other examples include optical illusion crosswalks in Beijing, faux speed bumps in Philadelphia, and even an illusory child playing in the street in West Vancouver.
- Fake Holes. Similarly, fake road holes like the street art painted by Joe Hill and Max Lowry on the Regent’s Canal towpath in North London provide both a photo op and a reason to slow down.
- Singing Highways. More locally, a quarter-mile stretch of Route 66 in Bernalillo County just outside of Albuquerque has been grooved with rumble strips engineered to “sing” the song “America the Beautiful.” Although some of the signs have been taken down since its creation, this highway novelty still urges drivers to slow down, as hearing the song requires you to be going exactly 45 miles per hour, the posted speed limit.
- Murals, Public Art, and Colored Asphalt. Like strategic landscaping, the use of art and color can produce visual cues which help drivers spontaneously reduce vehicle speeds. Many cities have undertaken traffic calming public art projects. An added benefit of the projects is the opportunity to promote awareness and education about the dangers of speeding on city streets. Those driving through cities like Chicago, Dallas, Austin, and Seattle may find large road murals at intersections, rainbow-hued pedestrian walkways, brightly-painted curbs, and vibrant artwork lining the streets.
- Parallel Parking. This is a simple, yet effective measure many neighborhood residents have begun to take. Rather than parking in the driveway or garage, some locals park their cars along the streets to narrow the road and remind cars passing through of the people who live nearby, both tactics which can encourage drivers to move more slowly through these areas.
- Sidewalk Cafes. Lining roads with people sitting, talking, and laughing has been found to produce an enormous shift in the way traffic behaves. One example of this phenomenon was observed in Phoenix, AZ as efforts to revitalize McDowell Road built up a concentration of restaurants with sidewalk cafes in the area, and slower-paced, more attentive driving patterns followed.
- Smart Speed Bumps. A more dynamic form of traffic calming than the traditional “dumb bumps,” smart speed bumps only activate when a speeding vehicle is detected. The brand Actipbump has found success in various applications around the world, including in Australia and its native Sweden.
- Reforming Car Advertising. Research has found that around half of all U.S. vehicle advertisements prominently feature dangerous driving behaviors. Speed, aggression, and reckless driving has long been a pillar of the American car marketing strategy. Coupled with the immense popularity over the past half-century of film and media glorifying car chases and street racing, it’s not surprising that we live in a culture obsessed with driving — and driving fast.
- Alternate Transportation Options. Making other intracity transportation options more attractive, by improving bike lanes and walking streets, building safer and more regular crosswalks, and establishing incentives to use public transportation, may be one of the best ways to help slow and relax the nonstop vehicle crawl of a city.
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