About Me

"I am a family physician and public health specialist, and have lived and worked in Africa, Asia and North America. I am passionate about health-care development and am a co-founder and director of Healtheon Asia.

This is a collection of my thoughts, travels and things I can't otherwise classify."
- Dr Armid Azadeh

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Speed: To thrill or to kill?

My childhood memories of things I aspired to acquire later in life revolved predominantly around a series of super-charged automobiles, each surpassing the previous, sometimes due to aesthetic beauty but always due to performance. There was the Diablo, the F40, and then the Bugatti Veyron. Today the fastest production car is the SSC Ultimate Aero with a top speed of 257mph.  I recall paging through my dad’s old magazines to find a test for a car and flipping forward to find its performance ratings. I would avidly read up about its acceleration, top-speed and power to mass ratio. Once licensed to drive, I reveled in the thrill of driving rather too fast and too reckless. While I never had a major disaster, and thus lived to write this piece, in one piece, I did have several narrow scrapes which inevitably preempted a period of more responsible driving (lasting only until I forgot that I wasn’t totally invincible).

This brings me to the topic of this editorial. I started wondering some time back, perhaps in one of my many day dreaming moments driving one of those cars, where would I be able to drive 200mph anyway? The maximum speed limit anywhere in the USA is 80mph, in Texas (not surprising), with the rest of the states ranging between 60-75mph. Globally, only the Isle of Man and about 50% of the Autobahns in Germany have no speed limit at all. 

Arguments have been made to raise speed limits in general, or even to abolish them entirely, most notably by associations such as the National Motorists Association (NMA). A study about the relationship between speed and motor vehicle accidents from 1964 involved 10,000 drivers, and clearly demonstrated a “U” shaped curve.  The research found that any deviation from the average speed resulted in proportionally more accidents, but that a deviation less than the average speed resulted in more accidents, as compared to faster speeds. It is furthermore argued that the speed limits throughout the country serve as merely a moneymaking racket and have not been based on engineering measurements for traffic safety. The NMA further argues that higher speed limits would not result in more accidents and fatalities, but have quite the opposite effect and that raising speed limits would even save on gas consumption. 

However, on the other side of this argument, and more clearly to reality which is ably supported by numerous research studies, it is argued that while slower speeds may in fact result in a higher frequency of road traffic accidents, there is overwhelming evidence that the road traffic accidents at higher speeds result in a much larger number of severe and fatal injuries. Motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading preventable causes of death in the USA.  Joksch (1993) found that the probability of death from an impact speed of 50mph was about 15 times greater than from an impact speed of 25mph.  Bowie and Waltz (1994) found that the risk of moderate or more serious injury was less than 5% when the change in velocity was less than 10mph and increased to more than 50% when the change exceeded 30mph. 

The right of the individual in this case needs to be tempered with the right of the community to a safer environment. If there are speed limits everywhere, then why are the automobile manufacturers producing cars that easily exceed that. Even the cheapest car in the market, the Nissan Versa, has a top speed of 120mph.  It’s like recreational drugs “legally” being sold without restrictions in a pharmacy while it remains illegal to use them. Traffic cameras can reduce speeding and thus dangerous accidents, but emphasis and policy needs to be leveled at manufacturers. Solutions may range from high-tech interventions that remotely limit the speeds of cars according to the road on which they are traveling to a broad policy, which is what I propose, that car manufacturers broadly limit the maximum speeds on the vehicles they produce (and thus engine sizes which will actually reduce gas consumption) to a safe acceptable level. 

Perhaps the fact that I am now further chronologically challenged and am a parent myself that my wife complains that now I drive too slowly. It scares me that my son, from a few months of age, is fascinated with cars, their speed, and their crashing into each other. Where did this come from? It has to be that shorter Y chromosome! I do still get that urge to drive that red sports car sometimes; my wife jokingly tells me I can get one when I’m going through my mid-life crisis. Maybe if cars had their top speeds limited they would not only save many lives, but they may even save some marriages as mid-life crises would lose their appeal too.

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