Sunday, March 12, 2000

'Super speeders' dying on Ohio roads

Greater numbers of drivers going 85 mph or more

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        More drivers are going faster — a lot faster — on Greater Cincinnati's interstates.

        The number of those clocked zooming past state police at 85 mph or more nearly doubled in the last three years.

        Rising with the speeds are police concerns about unsurvivable crashes.

        At a time when highway deaths are down nationally, more people are dying on Ohio's roads, and police are pointing the finger at ever-increasing speeds.

        According to tickets issued by the Ohio State Highway Patrol, the numbers written to drivers on Southwest Ohio interstates going 85 mph or faster nearly doubled between 1995 to 1998. An Enquirer analysis shows that in 1995 troopers wrote 958 tickets; in 1998 they wrote 1,879. And more than 160 of those were driving 100 mph or faster.

        The worst of these “super speeders” registered 143 mph on I-275 near Eastgate.

        Sgt. Ken Ward of the Ohio State Highway Patrol in Lebanon said he used to see super speeders headed to Florida down I-75 during spring break. But now troopers at his post see it every day.

        “Eleven years ago when I came on, I didn't see people going the speeds I see now,” he said. “Your reaction time is none, because at that speed you're covering so much ground. If there's a crash, you may as well call the coroner.”

        One ticketed driver said he pushes the limit to keep up with his high-speed life and, he adds, in his new car he just doesn't feel the speed. Air bags, anti-lock brakes and other safety features make it less scary to push the limit.

        But safety features aren't designed to handle crashes at excessive speeds.

        Sgt. Gary Lewis of the Ohio State Highway Patrol cites speed as the leading contributing factor in Ohio's auto fatalities in 1998. And the number of people being killed on Ohio roadways has been increasing since 1996 while nationally the numbers are down.

        Indiana and Kentucky do not keep computerized records of ticketed speeds, so data there could not be compared. But state troopers in both states said they think more people are hitting higher speeds than ever before.

        “People continue to push the envelope,” Sgt. Lewis said. “This is a society that is a very "go, go' mind-set, and that translates to speeding behind the wheel.”

Super-speeder profile
        Suprisingly, many “super speeders” — people caught traveling 85 mph or faster — are young, sober and driving in broad daylight. The Enquirer analysis showed that super speeders are:

        • Usually ticketed between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

        • Most often stopped in the 8 a.m. hour on Sundays.

        • Younger drivers, born between 1976 and 1978.

        • Mostly men. Twenty-nine percent are female.

        On a recent weekday lunch-hour speed patrol on southbound I-71 near Lebanon, Sgt. Ward clocked two super speeders. It was a 65 mph zone. He wrote tickets for drivers going 85 and 91. He wrote a third ticket for 84 mph.

        Once caught, super speeders don't usually make excuses, Sgt. Ward said. “What are you going to say?” he said. “There is no excuse to be going that fast.”

        Speeders and people who study driving behavior say there are several reasons drivers push to 85 mph and above.

        • They are in a hurry.

        • They have little fear of getting caught.

        • They feel safe at that speed.

        “I'm comfortable driving 85. It's just a matter of watching out for the lawman,” said Eric Amidon, 26, who lives outside Columbus. He got a ticket on I-71 near Lebanon last year for doing 87 mph.

        Mr. Amidon said he was in a hurry to get to Cincinnati to meet friends for the weekend. His theory: “People speed because they want to get where they're going.”

        Some who study driving behavior agree life's “pressures” and “frustrations” share part of the blame.

        “Though the U.S. as a nation has become more affluent, it's become in the work place much more cut-throat,” said David Gosling, a state of Ohio eminent scholar at the University of Cincinnati who specializes in transportation. “Two-income families are trying to get kids to day care and elsewhere. It makes people speed.”

        But Forrest Council, who has studied what happened after speed limits were raised, says higher limits are to blame as well.

        In mid-1996, Ohio let communities raise speed limits on rural interstates from 55 mph to 65 mph.

        “There are more people who are going to drive 20 over the limit rather than 30 over the limit,” said Mr. Council, director of the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Those people going 20 over are just going 85 rather than 75.”

        Still, Michael Marsden, who has studied America's fascination with the automobile for years, says drivers may be pushing limits more than ever before because they feel a sense of control when they're in their cars. Added safety features and a sturdier feel add to the sense of security.

        “A car is a cocoon that you weave around yourself and feel safe in,” said Mr. Marsden, Eastern Kentucky University's provost and president for academic affairs and research.

        And younger people especially feel safe at high speeds, he said. It fulfills desires for stimulation.

        “They don't understand crash risks,” Mr. Marsden said. “After people get in a crash, they tend to drive safer.”

        In older models, drivers could feel the vehicle shake when they hit excessive speeds. But drivers don't feel speed in newer cars.

        But in a high-speed crash, a car's steel, seat belts, air bags and other safety features aren't going to work as well, said Julie Rochman, spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an Arlington, Va.-based group financed by the nation's auto insurers.

        “You can't hit something at 70 or 80 miles per hour and expect you are going to be protected the same way,” she said. “The protectiveness of a vehicle, at some point, is maxed out.”

        No matter how good a driver may be, Sgt. Ward says, the law of physics is going to kick in.

        If a driver's speed increases by 38 percent, it's going to take 82 percent more room to stop.

        For example, at 65 mph, it takes 288 feet — nearly the length of a football field — to react and stop after a deer runs across the road or another car swerves into the lane.

        At 90 mph, that same car won't stop for 524 feet, about the length of 13/4 football fields.

        There may be more super speeders out there, but police say new technology is making it easier to catch them. Police send airplanes up to catch speeders from above and state troopers use more-precide laser guns rather than radar guns to clock speeds.

        Ms. Rochman says writing tickets on a regular basis will be one of the most effective ways to slow super speeders.

        “People obey speed laws if there is a perception of pain,” she said. “They don't want to pay a penalty.”

        In Ohio, the cost of a ticket depends on the local municipal or county court, but tickets for excessive speeding usually are more than $100.

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