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Speeding in Residential Areas, 2nd Edition

Guide No.3 (2010)

by Michael S. Scott with David K. Maddox

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The Problem of Speeding in Residential Areas

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

This guide addresses the problem of speeding in residential areas, one of the most common sources of citizen complaints to the police. The guide begins by describing the problem and reviewing factors that increase its risks. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local speeding problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem and what is known about them from evaluative research and police practice.§

§ See the companion online learning module on Speeding in Residential Areas at www.popcenter.org/learning/speeding/.

Speeding in residential areas is but one aspect of the larger set of problems related to speeding and traffic safety. This guide is limited to addressing the particular harms created by speeding in residential areas. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide, each of which requires separate analysis, include the following:

For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see www.popcenter.org

General Description of the Problem

Speeding in residential areas is often community groups' chief concern, largely because of the perceived risks to children. Yet because speeding must compete with other problems for police attention, problems that may appear far more serious, police often do not devote a lot of resources to it.

Speeding in residential areas causes five basic types of harm:

  • It makes citizens fear for children's safety
  • It makes pedestrians and bicyclists fear for their safety
  • It increases the risk of vehicle crashes
  • It increases the seriousness of injuries to a speeder's own passenger(s) and to other drivers and passenger(s), pedestrians and bicyclists a vehicle strikes
  • It increases noise from engine acceleration and tire friction

Speeding increases the risks of crashes and injuries for several reasons:

  • The driver is more likely to lose control of the vehicle
  • The vehicle safety equipment is less effective at higher speeds
  • The distance it takes to stop the vehicle is greater
  • The vehicle travels farther during the time it takes the driver to react to a hazard
  • Crashes are more severe at higher speeds1

Factors Contributing to Speeding in Residential Areas

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Even modestly higher speeds can spell the difference between life and death for pedestrians struck by a vehicle. The impact's force on the human body is more than one-third greater at 35 mph than at 30 mph.2 Each 1-mph reduction in average speeds translates roughly to a 5 percent reduction in vehicle crashes.3

Speeders are disproportionately involved in vehicle crashes.4 Speeding is a contributing factor in about one-eighth of all crashes and in about one-third of all fatal crashes.5 Most crashes occur in urban areas, although most fatalities occur on more-remote highways.6

Beliefs and Attitudes About Speeding

Many cultures heavily promote speeding, giving it a generally positive social image. Vehicle advertisements often show driving that would be unsafe for average drivers on real roads. Most drivers do not think speeding is a particularly serious or dangerous offense, except in areas where children might be present.7 Drivers tend to overestimate their driving skills and underestimate the crash risks.8 Drivers tend to feel they can travel seven to eight mph over the posted speed limit without the police's citing them.9 Chronic speeders also have a greater likelihood of being involved in crashes.10

Speed-related vehicle collisions are more commonly thought of and referred to as "accidents" rather than "crashes," suggesting that collisions are not drivers' fault. Studies in Canada and Australia, as well as in the United States, have found that a driver's risk of a crash increases in direct proportion to the number of times police have cited the driver for speed violations in the past.11

Many drivers admit to speeding in residential areas.12 Their reasons for speeding include running late and wanting to make up for lost time, being unaware of the speed limit and trying to keep up with other traffic.13 The most important factor in determining speed is the driver's perception of the road environment and of what speed is safe to drive.14, § Whatever drivers' specific reasons, it appears they make calculated decisions to speed,15 creating opportunities for the police to alter their calculations.§§

§ Traffic engineers take drivers' perceptions into account in setting speed limits. The common standard for a posted speed limit is the speed at which 85 percent of drivers travel at or below, known as the 85th-percentile speed (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 1997). 

§§ For detailed information on drivers' habits, attitudes and beliefs, see National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (1998); U.K. Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (1998); and Corbett and Simon (1992). 

From a wider social policy perspective, reducing speed must be balanced with other goals such as promoting a healthy economy (which partly entails getting goods and services delivered quickly), reducing environmental pollution and promoting healthful behavior (by encouraging walking, running and bicycling).16

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