On March 15, John Stokes piloted his tractor-trailer in front of an Amtrak train at a rail crossing in Bourbonnais, Ill. In the ensuing collision, 11 people were killed. His commercial license was suspended for all of two months. His right to drive his car for noncommercial purposes was unaffected. Even this wrist slap only happened after it came out that Stokes had had at least nine moving violations since 1991–three of them last year.
So why is he allowed on the road at all? Answer: because he broke the law while stone cold sober. Had Stokes been cited even once for driving drunk–even without an accident, even without violating any traffic rule–he automatically would have lost his right to drive for six months. A second offense would have cost him a year’s driving, and a third would have sent him to jail.
Why the difference? Alcohol is the leading cause of traffic fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, contributing to more than 16,000 deaths each year, making up 30 percent of all fatalities on the road. But speed comes in a very respectable second, killing 13,000 Americans annually.
Today, drunken drivers rank as one notch above child molesters in the popular mind. But attitudes about driving while intoxicated were not always so negative. Twenty years ago, it was still widely accepted as harmless high jinks. Only in the 1980s, thanks to campaigns by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, did Americans come to recognize the vast toll of drunks on the road. As a result, we’ve stiffened penalties, raised the drinking age from 18 to 21, mandated license revocation for minors caught driving after drinking any amount of alcohol and, in 16 states, tightened the blood-alcohol standard for drunkenness. Deaths in alcohol-related crashes fell 32 percent between 1982 and 1997.
When it comes to speed, though, the attitude is: Party on! In 1995, Congress dropped all federal restrictions on highway speed limits (first imposed during the 1970s energy crisis), letting states set the maximum wherever they pleased. Radar detectors, whose sole purpose is to help motorists break the law with impunity, are legal for cars in 49 states. (Virginia is the exception.) How long would legislators tolerate the sale of a device to foil a Breathalyzer?
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that after the repeal of 55-mph speed limits, fatalities rose by 17 percent on interstate highways where the limit was raised. More people driving faster means more slaughter on the roads. But the bloodshed by speeders doesn’t evoke the same emotional revulsion as the bloodshed by drunks.
W hy not? One explanation is that most people don’t ever drive while intoxicated, while most do exceed the speed limit from time to time. Any movement for social reform is more effective if it pillories a small minority and leaves the majority unaccused and unaffected.
People don’t believe that excessive speed is as risky as excessive drink. They think it is possible for an experienced and competent driver (such as themselves) to go fast without hurting anyone. This is, in fact, possible. It is also possible to drive drunk without causing an accident. Every night the vast majority of drunken drivers get home safely. But we don’t accept that as a defense. We understand that however able the driver, the risk of this type of behavior is serious and intolerable. We treat the culprits as potential killers who need to be restrained from endangering the innocent.
Our attitudes about serious speeding have yet to come to grips with simple reality. Car magazines and auto commercials continue to not merely excuse but celebrate behavior that kills almost as many Americans annually as died in the Vietnam War during its bloodiest year, while maiming and injuring thousands more. If we were to crack down on speeding as vigorously as we did on drunken driving–by mandating license suspensions for repeat offenders, imposing jail time on incorrigibles, and outlawing radar detectors–we could make the roads far safer. The drunken driving crusade reduced alcohol-related deaths by a third. A comparable commitment on speed could save more than 4,000 lives every year.