Editorial: Enforcement should focus on drunks

Drunks and distracted drivers cause most accidents, but most enforcement efforts focus on people driving above the speed limit.

Nearly half of all traffic fatalities are caused by drunken drivers, according to National Highway Transportation Safety Administration data, which also — with help from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute — tells us that fully 80 percent of all traffic crashes are caused in part by distracted drivers, mostly those talking on cell phones. So why do more drivers encounter radar guns during the holidays than Breathalyzers or unsafe driving citations?

If ever there is a time for increased enforcement, it would be during the holidays when parties are common and more people are tempted to get behind the wheel after drinking. Similarly, the roads are chock-full of drivers on gift-buying missions and using cell phones to find out what size little Johnny wears now or if Aunt Melanie would like a new blue sweater. The latest data demonstrates that such drivers kill and maim far more people than speeders.

Law enforcement and traffic safety bureaucrats seem mostly to concentrate on speeders. Just last year at the National Forum on Speeding, officials from federal, state and local government declared that “speeding is a critical highway safety issue” and that reducing speeding requires “concentrated and coordinated engineering, education and enforcement efforts by all levels of government and by many private sector organizations.”

The data on drunken driving and distracted drivers, however, suggests that anti-speeding campaigns get priority mainly because anti-speeding campaigns have always gotten priority funding and enforcement resources.

The strategy of focusing primarily on speeders instead of drunks and distracted cell phone users is simply an expression of the conventional wisdom — “Speed Kills” — that prevails among enforcement and traffic safety officialdom. NHTSA’s own data reports on the one hand that about 80 percent of all drivers routinely exceed speed limits, but on the other hand excessive speed is only a “contributing factor” in 31 percent of all traffic fatalities. If the first figure is accurate, shouldn’t the second figure be much higher if speed is so central a factor in causing fatalities?

Driving faster than the speed limit often correlates with reckless driving, of course, and higher speeds narrow the margin of error for drivers. But of every driver ticketed while driving safely but going 8 or 10 m.p.h too fast, many others will be observing those limits while putting lives in jeopardy by driving distractedly or under the influence.

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