By on October 26, 2016

David Lofink/Flickr Speed Limit 55

When driving, consider how often you look down to check your speed. Even with a good sense of your current velocity, entering a known enforcement zone or seeing a posted limit forces you to stop what we are doing and take quick peeks at the speedometer. It may only be a fraction of a second each time, but that’s still a fraction of a second where you aren’t paying full attention to the road ahead.

You might think that the average motorist is perfectly capable of such basic multitasking without causing additional risk. According to new research, you might be wrong.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation interviewed researchers from the University of Western Australia who tested the theory that reducing the speed enforcement threshold impacts a driver’s mental and visual abilities.

The group’s study placed 84 participants into a simulation and told them they could be fined for driving one, six or eleven kilometers per hour over an indicated 50 kph speed limit (a leisurely 31 mph). Researchers then measured their response to small red dots that appeared in their peripheral vision.

Lead researcher Dr. Vanessa Bowden said the study found those who were given a one-kilometer-per-hour threshold were less likely to detect objects outside of their immediate line of sight.

Replace those red dots with things like dogs, other vehicles, or small children and you start to see where this is all going.

“We concluded that drivers’ mental and visual resources were being used up by paying extra attention to the speed monitoring task, and this was taking some of their attention away from the visual world around them when they were driving,” Bowden said.

The participants were also asked to fill out a questionnaire to assess how difficult or demanding they found the overall experience. Unsurprisingly, drivers who were given a stricter speed limit threshold rated the experience as more demanding.

“There can be a perception that by making it stricter you’re only going to get benefits, like you’ll get everyone driving more slowly and more safely,” she said “But … you can’t necessarily make drivers pay more attention to the speed and go more slowly without taking their attention away from some other critical aspect of driving.”

It’s worth noting that this study isn’t conclusive of anything beyond this sample having a hard time spotting red dots under the pressures of being caught speeding. It doesn’t suggest that doing away with speed limits will make us all safer better drivers. However, it does offer something to consider in regard to how strictly it’s worth enforcing those limits.

The researchers plan to follow up this research with an investigation into whether drivers respond poorly to hazards when strict speed limits are enforced.

[Image: David Lofink/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

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50 Comments on “Strict Speed Enforcement Could Make You More Dangerous Behind the Wheel...”


  • avatar
    Vulpine

    This is where automatic speed controls should come in. I specifically use my cruise control at all speeds, where possible, to help me maintain a steady speed and permit me to observe traffic without having to constantly glance at the speedometer. Yes, even at 30mph I will use cruise control simply because it is too easy to accelerate to highway speed without realizing you’re doing so until it’s too late.

    • 0 avatar
      AK

      Cruise control at 30?

      That’s bad.

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        “Cruise control at 30? That’s bad.”

        Better than trying to manually monitor your speed while you’re supposed to be watching traffic.

      • 0 avatar
        rpn453

        Not as “bad” as me. I use cruise at as low as 30 km/hr through school zones. Using cruise is automatic for me in all driving conditions. Once I’m at my intended speed, I push the button. Then I relax and focus only on what’s in front of me.

        I’m interested in the explanation for what’s “bad” about that.

    • 0 avatar
      bludragon

      I used to have a car which allowed you to specify a speed limit via the cruise controls on the steering wheel. Not a beep, but an actual speed the car would limit itself to. This was an awesome feature, as it meant you had the speed limiting benefit of normal cruise control, allowing focus to be on the road ahead, but still retained full control via the pedals to slow down as traffic dictated.

      I sort of emulate this now via cancel/resume on regular cruise controls, but this is a little less intuitive.

      • 0 avatar
        Spike_in_Brisbane

        An excellent feature, still available on Citroens. It allows me to drive as joyfully as I want, safe in the knowledge that I will never exceed the speed limit.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      I’m sorry but you really shouldn’t need to use cruise control to maintain your speed especially in a car that you’ve owned for a while. On my daily driver I have two different tires sizes for my winter and summer tires. That means that the speedo is inaccurate with the larger diameter tires. I rarely check my speedo but on the occasions that I do I look down and find myself with the speedo dead on 60 with the stock tires and at 58 with the taller tires.

      Even in a vehicle I haven’t driven before, even one wildly different than my daily driver I manage to drive the speed I am intending to go w/o constant monitoring of the Speedo.

      I just made a new addition to the fleet last week, one I’m sure you are quite jealous of. ;) It is a 2006 F250, Crew Cab, Long Bed, 4×4 it does only have the V8 and I really wanted a V10. However it is sporting a 6sp manual trans and I had to put one of the last of the bread in my bucket. I acquired from the state. I had noticed that for what ever reason someone had put smaller that stock tires on it. I didn’t bother to do the math before set out on the 60mi trip home. Along the way I found the speedo usually sitting at 64-65 when I was intending to do the speed limit on a 60mph road. Once home the math said that I had been doing about 61-62. Maybe not perfect but not too far off.

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        Driving, for a while, three different vehicles with three different ride heights, tire diameters and engine/tranny combos, trying to maintain one speed by foot alone was difficult at best. In the Jeep, the tallest, 30 mph felt fast and I constantly caught myself going well under the speed limit–to the consternation and anger of anyone following. In the Fiat 500, 30mph felt slow (was happy for the digital numeric speed display) and I would easily creep up to 35. My Ranger, which does not have speed control, I find myself wandering up and down from 28 – 33, though if I keep the radio volume down I can stabilize that somewhat by listening to the exhaust note. The first was a six-cylinder 6-speed stick; the second a 4-cylinder 6-speed automatic; the third a 4-cylinder 5-speed stick. Each had its own exhaust note and each had its own ‘feel’ at a given speed. I find the Ranger is the easiest to avoid speeding when driving ‘manually’ (referencing the other two •with• cruise), but without cruise control my speed can vary widely as I drive down the highway, which is something I find upsetting when I get behind another driver showing that same inability to maintain a steady speed.

        In other words, I find that using the CC to maintain a steady speed is far safer than trying to ‘lock in’ a speed through constant checks of the speedometer. The test discussed above proves this viewpoint.

        • 0 avatar
          Scoutdude

          Sorry but that sounds like a personal problem. The portion of my fleet that I drive regularly year round consists of:

          E150 (the late model CAFE busting one that is really a E250)
          CVPI
          Mercury Mountaineer

          and as of last week

          Escape Hybrid
          F250 4×4

          Granted I don’t have many miles behind the wheel of those recent additions but I was spot on with the Escape starting with the drive home and not too far off on the F250.

          • 0 avatar
            brandloyalty

            Don’t you find the Escape Hybrid’s lack of a correspondence between engine rpm and speed makes it necessary to check the speedometer frequently? I know that’s true for me when driving my Escape Hybrid.

          • 0 avatar
            Scoutdude

            No but I had many thousands of miles in a Fusion Hybrid so I have became accustomed to the general way it operates. It is not like the engine speed is that divorced from road speed unless the grade is more significant.

            Now we have only put ~500 miles on the Escape but in the Fusion I did find that unlike many vehicles using cruise did improve the mileage in my freeway travels, thanks to our less than flat terrain.

          • 0 avatar

            Personal problem? Why is using cruise control at lower continuous speeds a problem to begin with?

            “Oh, you use matches to start your fires instead of hair and a stick? Well, no offense, but that’s your personal problem.”

      • 0 avatar
        sti2m3

        I recently moved to Australia from the US and I almost flipped my lid when my wife showed me the speeding ticket from a speeding camera that I got that was 61km in a 60km zone.

        Granted, it was only about $200AUD but it was enough to make me notice.

        Now I seriously concentrate ONLY on the speed and heaven forbid acid kid goes running out chasing a ball…

        Actually, I’m just dating myself.

        I think it’s more like an adult not paying attention and stepping off the sidewalk because they’re too focused on their cell phone.

    • 0 avatar
      sportyaccordy

      In Europe all the rental cars I got had cruise control and speed limiters. They also showed the speed limit on the navigation screen. Logical combination of the two would have been to set some kind of margin below or above the speed limit on the speed limiter.

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        In order to make a safe pass on some highways, you would probably need to exceed the limit by 10mph for a short period of time. So a time-restricted period of say… one minute at 10 over might be a way of getting around that issue. However, I have personally experienced multiple cases of where when you attempt to pass a slower vehicle–especially on a two-lane highway–the driver of that slower vehicle might not want to be passed and would actively attempt to block the pass by speeding up themselves; yes, some people are that self centered.

        What would you recommend?

        • 0 avatar
          rpn453

          I’d prefer 30 over for ten seconds instead!

          • 0 avatar
            Vulpine

            You might prefer 30 over, but not all cars can achieve that in ten seconds AND complete a safe pass. Also, there are some drivers who simply refuse to use all the power available to them and take “forever” to pass a slower car. Now, the expressways tend to make passing easier, certainly; but even with that, it becomes a race between slow and slower. If you’re on a two-lane highway behind such a pair, it becomes exceedingly frustrating to find a place you can pass both of them even when you’re not afraid to use all the power you have.

    • 0 avatar

      In my older – 1998 – vehicle the CC doesn’t work below 35 mph. Open road I use cruise all the time to maintain a consistent speed. Used to be able to “lock” into a speed manually, but I’ve gotten lazy. I think in many ways it comes down to practice. Honing a skill – which driving at a consistent speed w/o CC is – requires practice (constant use) to become proficient. Whatever works for you to accomplish what you intend should be acceptable. It is not a one size fits all situation. Feeling confident and safe while allowing for other traffic should be the order of the day (I’ll take the number 7 with a diet DP thanks).

    • 0 avatar
      NetGenHoon

      Adaptive Cruise Control with StopNGo to the rescue! I use it everywhere, city, freeway etc.

  • avatar
    raph

    Over in Italy for the moment and I kinda dig thier speed enforcement. Not a fan of cameras but in this case its not bad. The police don’t seem to set up traps at all and rely on the cameras to do all the work. The speed camera zones are well marked and mostly visible so it seems,to train drivers where to slow down and where its okay to move at a faster pace.

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    Silly study. It assumes that there is supposed to be a link between speed fines and safety.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    Heads up display.

    Problem solved.

    Love having a heads up display, miss it, and after having it seems like one of those things every car should have.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    In most cases, the flow of traffic determines what speeds are safe and “speed limits” should serve to provide that information to drivers who are unfamiliar with the road.

    Strict enforcement usually misses the point. If you aren’t driving much faster than everyone else, then you’re generally alright. There are exceptions to this, but those should not be treated as if they are the rule.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      But how else do you expect them to enhance revenue?

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        This. Traffic enforcement for simple speeding, failure to signal, and other very minor infractions have nothing to do with safety, and everything to do with revenue.

        Yes, someone who is going 35 in a 20 MPH school zone deserves the ticket. Rn a redlight you deserve a ticket. California stop at a suburban 4-way with not another car in sight? Are you kidding me – let it go man. Someone going with the flow of the traffic, driving in a straight line, not tailgating, not weaving, just rolling along at 68 MPH on a 60 MPH road with everyone else doesn’t.

        • 0 avatar
          Daniel J

          Well, in my neighborhood, posted 25mph people do 50 which is ridiculous. Its not that hard to go the speed limit in a residential area, and cops do ticket in those areas, not for revenue, but for safety.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            The attitude of the drivers in a given area really makes a big difference.

            I just moved out of a suburb where pedestrians were rare and drivers had lead feet. My street there was a narrowish residential street, with houses or condos on both sides, that was only three blocks long. Nevertheless, several drivers a day would treat it as a dragstrip, reaching 50+ mph (speed limit 25) before slowing again for the next turn.

            Now I live on an arterial street that’s wider and straighter, but it’s in the city and the drivers are more accustomed to having lots of pedestrians and bicyclists around. People mostly stay pretty close to the 30 mph speed limit; I think I’ve seen two severe speeders in the month we’ve lived there.

          • 0 avatar
            Scoutdude

            @dal, many years ago I saw an article that claimed that the area of Kirkland near the water front had the highest absolute number of pedestrians being hit by cars.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            Wouldn’t surprise me. The drivers there really were d!cks toward pedestrians, often going out of their way to be antagonistic. It was just one symptom of the constant political war between factions of Kirklanders over whether Kirkland would become urban or forever be a low-density bedroom community.

          • 0 avatar
            Scoutdude

            I know back when I was a salesman I hated to make the calls in Kirkland, Bellevue, Factoria, and to a lesser extent Issaquah.

            Making it across the parking lot full of those antagonistic drivers was often a little scary. Come up to the clearly marked cross walk area leading to the main doors and that guy that was going slowly more often would speed up. Dare to set foot into the crosswalk and they will speed up some more. More than once it made me pick up the pace. It certainly seemed like a game to them. The thing is they too would have to cross that same path to get in the building. Definitely not the land of treat others as you would want to be treated.

            Out here in Maple Valley is the complete opposite, just look like you’ll be at the crosswalk by the time that they will be there in their car and they will more often than not stop and wait for you.

          • 0 avatar
            ToddAtlasF1

            Here in dystopia, there is a craze for designing shopping centers with the parking lots in the center. Imbeciles don’t like seeing cars from the road, so they want to hide the parking lots with the backs of stores whose signs are also too small to be readily identified thanks to dolt rule. The result of this traffic pattern is that if you insist on shopping in such places, you must navigate countless crosswalks as you drive past store fronts. Once you’ve parked, you have to work your way through a traffic stream consisting of every car entering or leaving the shopping center. Delivery trucks too. I’m tempted to put up a running tally body count sign to warn drivers and pedestrians at “The Shops at Stonefield,” but I know it would be removed immediately.

            I hope whoever first decided that cars should be forced to drive past store fronts entering a parking lot watches their family being crushed under a bus. I get it that lazy sheep are going to do whatever they can to park near the door of each store they visit, but the rest of us should at least have the option of never driving through cross walks or loading zones at shopping centers.

            The attitudes of local drivers make a difference, but good design keeps pedestrians and cars at a safe distance. There are places where surface streets mean cars and people must coexist, but building a shopping center where every car is forced to cross every pedestrian’s path is the act of a misanthrope.

  • avatar

    This is absolutely true, and yet another reason that limits posted well below the 85th percentile speeds are wrong and raise the crash risks. Average speed cams make it even worse. Limits set at the 85th percentile speeds and enforced with a reasonable grace are the best. Unfortunately, maximizing safety is not profitable.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      Trying to enforce a limit below the 85th percentile is difficult and can lead to safety problems just like this article says. But there are also places where people legitimately drive faster than they should for safety — say, a wide, straight road with lots of crosswalks near several schools. If a jurisdiction finds that the 85th percentile speed is too fast for safety, the solution isn’t just to lower the speed limit — it’s to redesign the street so that motorists aren’t inclined to drive as fast. Narrowing and/or removing lanes, adding stop signs, and sharpening turns can all help accomplish this.

      It’s really street design, not the speed limit, that dictates how fast motorists will go. Where needed to keep pedestrians safe, streets should be designed for low speeds.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        But again what about the revenue enhancement? Several years ago when I frequently traveled SR 900 between Issaquah and Renton I watched as they stretched out the hoses for the speed recording equipment. The posted speed at that time was 50mph for the bulk of the length. That was too fast and the vast majority of people would drive at 45mph. I made it a point to always hit it at least 50 if not more.

        Not long after the recorder went away new signs went up at 40 mph. That was soon followed by both the WSP and Sheriff finding the perfect spot to rob motorists and enhance revenue. It was such a profitable spot that at least one pair of officers got physical with each other because the Sheriff wouldn’t give up the spot to the Trooper who claimed the WSP has sole jurisdiction since it was a State Route.

      • 0 avatar
        ToddAtlasF1

        Nobody’s talking about how many pedestrians get hit on re-engineered roads with narrow lanes, traffic circles, zig-zagging lanes edged by high curbs, and other stupid ideas meant to limit speeds while distracting drivers from the presence of pedestrians. I gave up on my favorite bicycle loop because traffic calming turned it into a death trap. Progressives think speed is the enemy with no regard for actual safety. They’ll paint giant chevrons on the road to slow people down, even if it rains twice a week, turning the painted pavement slippery enough to fell any cyclist and prevent any car from avoiding them on the ground. As long as the chevrons slow people from getting where they are going, progressives are happy.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    Mandatory heads up display will fix it

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    You really shouldn’t be driving if you can’t glance at the speedo once in a while without becoming a hazard. Or unable to maintain a steady speed without your eyes glued to the speedo. This study is a real eye opener for me!

    I’ll drive behind people that hog the fast lane, me watching their eyes in their mirrors, and they’ll drive for many miles not checking their mirrors or gauges!! Scary is right!!!

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Let me get this straight. Self driving cars are bad because they minimize driver involvement. But strict enforcement of speed limits is bad because it requires too much driver involvement.

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle

      The problem isn’t strictly driver involvement, it’s that strict limits require the wrong kind of driver involvement. People spend their time looking at their dashboard instead of looking at the road.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      “Let me get this straight. Self driving cars are bad because they minimize driver involvement.”

      No, you have it backwards. If they work, then self driving cars would be good because they minimize driver involvement.

      The whole point of having them is to keep drivers from doing the things that they do to kill others. But that technology does not exist today, and anyone who implies that he has a self-driving car that is ready for prime time is lying to you. (I’m looking at you, Elon Musk.)

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Wadeaminnit! Maintain your speed within 1 kph of the posted limit and you can’t see the red dot? The sun still rises in the East, too. What about the results for 6 or 7 or 11 kph? Crickets?

    I’m no fan of “strict” speed enforcement, but I don’t think this study — at least as reported here — proves anything worth knowing.

    I still wonder what the point of lowering speed limits in response to speeding is, but I’ve seen two big examples of it in DC Metro over the years.

    One is the Cabin John Parkway that follows the Potomac River into DC on the Maryland side. Forever (and I mean, like, decades) the speed limit on this road has been 45 mph. It is a commuter artery to the extent that, during rush hours its one-way flow in the traffic direction. So, naturally, people tended to speed. What did the geniuses at the National Park Service do to deal with this? Instead of busting out some heavy enforcement to keep people under 50, they lowered the speed limit to 35.

    Similarly, MacArthur Blvd. inside the District of Columbia follows the river all the way to Georgetown. It’s a two lane with parking, divided by a nice wide esplanade, road and it passes through residential and light commercial areas. Forever, the speed limit has been 30, which is, frankly on the low side. There are traffic signals here and there, so the flow is broken up enough that people can cross the street at unsignalized intersections. Residents along the way, apparently complained about the speeding commuters (and, in truth, when I occasionally commuted on that road at 35 back in the day, I was a rolling roadblock). Rather than roll out some heavy speed enforcement of the existing limit, however, the DC government dropped the speed limit to 25 and installed several speed cameras. Sorry, folks, if you buy a house on a major artery, it’s not your right to forcibly turn it into a country lane full of Sunday drivers.

    Or maybe they just hate Maryland commuters and want to get them any way they can. (I haven’t been a Maryland commuter for more than 20 years.)

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      It’s cheaper to change speed limits than it is to enforce existing ones. Enforcement requires more people in more vehicles to monitor and ticket the offenders. In order to even break even on costs, each officer would need to ticket their own salary plus their vehicle’s cost at a minimum each year. The cameras help, but too many see them as an invasion of privacy and a revenue source rather than a legitimate enforcement tool.

      So the problem really comes down to the question of how to enforce existing speed limits at the lowest possible cost. Reducing the speed limits DOES have the effect of reducing the number of speeders at the original speed limit, though at the cost of slowing the average traffic down below the desired speed limit.

      Now. How would YOU fix the situation?

  • avatar
    Imagin

    I thought they’ve found when people feel it’s too slow, they pay less attention to the road then when the pace is faster

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    They need to set more realistic speed limits. 90 MPH on US highways outside of the frost heave belt is more than reasonable. When I was in Europe I was getting passed by little 100 HP diesel Renaults at those speeds. Would be more important in my opinion to bolster driving training and enforce lane discipline.

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      Speed limits of 70-75mph are more than reasonable, you should be glad they’re no longer at 55mph. I had to drive through that and honestly it WAS frustratingly slow. Maybe when everyone’s driving EVs they’ll push it up to 90mph or faster but you also don’t want to forget that at that kind of speed your car is still little more than an eggshell if you hit something. And not everybody is going to want to drive at 90, so you could see as much as a 35-40mph difference in the speeds of cars traveling in the same direction.

      I agree with enforcing lane discipline, but don’t forget that most of today’s drivers learned and got their experience driving without that discipline and even today you’ve got those who will run speeds well above the average traffic and take ridiculous chances to use openings barely larger than the vehicle they’re driving to move ahead. A lot of crashes today are caused my people who never know they’ve done it.

  • avatar
    wsn

    The general concept of this study is wrong. It’s like this:
    1) You select test subjects who were used to drive 10 above for the past 30 years.
    2) You asked them to drive 1 above and then 11 above.
    3) You concluded they drive better at 10 above.

    Don’t you see anything wrong here? Of course people do better at what they have been doing for a long time.

    To make the study of any value, you need to:
    1) Select people who has never driven a car before. Not easy, but not too hard.
    2) Make the two groups (1 above vs 11 above) having the same real limit. I.e. limit of 60 for 1 above vs limit of 50 for 11 above.
    3) Use prizes to let the two groups compete for faster time, which would mimic a real world situation.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    When I’m on the freeway, I get up to the posted speed and look around me. One third of traffic is moving more slowly, and two thirds are moving faster. I just keep up with traffic around me and keep that ratio in mind, and it keeps me “around” the posted speed.

    The heavier the traffic, the better off you are just going with the flow and ignoring the speedometer. I haven’t gotten a speeding ticket in years, but once a few years ago in Los Angeles, a CHP officer motioned me to speed up, and I looked at the speedo and was doing 68 in a 65 zone!

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