The Hidden Reasons Why We Speed

In traffic safety, speeding is a hot-button topic. It’s a factor in a third of all traffic crashes and a leading predictor of risk. Billions of dollars have been spent in engineering, enforcement, and education, and yet more drivers think it’s acceptable to speed than ever. You’ve probably noticed that everyone seems to be going faster, and maybe you’re even doing it, too. Just why is that?

It’s easy to spot and blame the obvious violators—youths street racing, teens on joy rides, impaired drivers, and aggressive road-ragers. But most of us who habitually drive above the posted speed limits don’t fit these stereotypes. We don’t aspire to be reckless or intend to cause harm. In fact, we probably don’t think we’re being dangerous at all. But many unseen factors encourage us to speed. What are they? And how can we be more aware of them?

We Drive the Way We Are as People

Try this social experiment: Visit your local grocery store on a busy day and watch how people maneuver their shopping carts around others. Some people walk slowly. They may be distracted and spatially oblivious, stopping suddenly in the aisle without regard for others behind them. Others are more situationally aware, darting confidently like they’re on a mission. They may be stressed or in a hurry, nearly running into someone coming around a corner. Some shoppers are polite and cooperative, making eye contact, while others couldn’t care less.

Now, imagine these same people driving through the store’s parking lot and on the street. Then think about how you literally navigate through life. I’ll bet you’ll start to notice some patterns—that we often drive exactly the way we are as people.

This concept is a core principle in the GDE (Goals for Driver Education) Matrix, a cornerstone of driver training in many European countries. A person’s lifestyle, personality, attitudes, and values influence how they make decisions, perceive risk, respond to social pressure, and manage impulse control. Coaches use self-reflection to encourage students to examine their biases, risky tendencies, and personality traits that affect their driving style.

One’s profession might offer clues, too. In November 2004, CNN Money published an article about crash risk data collected by insurance companies on one million drivers over an eighteen-month period. The top five occupations for crashes were students, medical doctors, lawyers, architects, and real estate agents. The top five for speeding tickets again included students and architects, but added enlisted military, manual laborers, and politicians.

Driving inexperience, fatigue, and smartphone use were the assumed culprits in these demographics, but personality also likely plays a major role. Doctors, lawyers, architects, military veterans, and politicians tend to be ambitious A-type personalities who are extremely self-confident in their ability to control and shape their world, and they may take bigger risks because of their optimism bias.

Social Pressure Drives Us All

A big reason we speed is social pressure. Because we’re biologically wired to copy one another to ensure social cohesion and collective survival, we speed simply because we see others doing it. Soon we’re all going much faster than we should be, and we often don’t even realize it. Then we justify that we’re driving “to match the flow of traffic.” Speeding is now culturally acceptable and normalized.

Some of us really don’t want to go so fast. But if others are tailgating us or giving us dirty looks, we may feel anxious and pressured to conform. Shame is a powerful social motivator, and so are the “bulldozers” setting the pace for everyone else. In these moments, it’s worth remembering to move out of the way to let others pass but not to give in by speeding yourself. After all, copycatting goes both ways—your act of driving safely gives others permission to do the same, calming and lowering the social temperature of the road environment.

Our State of Mind Isn’t Doing So Well

The pandemic, global conflicts, politics, racial injustice, inflation, and climate change have brought unprecedented trauma, stress, and hardship for many of us. Anger is the most common emotion experienced in driving, and our roads and vehicles have become prime outlets for our collective frustration and anxiety. It’s reflected in increased road rage, speeding, honking, cutting off others, and driver overreactions to the slightest provocation.

As rates of mental health issues and chronic illness rise, more people are also turning to medications, alcohol, and illicit drugs to cope. These substances can impair judgment, influence mood, and lower social inhibitions. Because we drive the way we are as people, our roads really do mirror this lack of well-being.

We Have No Idea of the Danger We Cause When We Speed

Many of us ignore speed limits simply because nothing bad has ever happened to us at the speeds we have been going. We don’t feel unsafe, when, in fact, timing, luck, and other attentive road users have covered for us. Instead, we drive according to our perceptions of what’s safe, not what actually is. Before we know it, “five over the limit” becomes a lethal ten and more.

To perceive danger, we must know what hazards to look for at any given moment, how to assess risk, and how to anticipate what could happen. But maybe we were never properly trained in these skills. We don’t realize that the faster we go, the harder it is to cognitively process a rapidly changing situation. Bad habits, experience, overconfidence, distraction, and complacency also erode our vigilance. The result? We simply don’t know what we don’t know.

Our Streets Invite Us to Speed

Street design is a major contributor to speeding and crashes, especially in the US, which has long emphasized throughput (the number of vehicles that can enter and exit a street as quickly as possible) over the safety of pedestrians and cyclists. For instance, wider lanes, straight sightlines, and long blocks give us the illusion we can safely go faster, whereas narrower lanes, tree cover, and shorter blocks foster uncertainty, so we slow down. Streets should be designed to make drivers feel uncomfortable travelling at unsafe speeds, but this is often not the case.

There is also the practice of transportation engineers in some countries to use the 85th percentile as a guide for setting safe speed limits on many streets. The 85th percentile is the speed at or below which 85 percent of drivers naturally travel under favourable conditions. This concept assumes that most drivers do not set their speeds based on a specific number but on how safe the environment feels to them. Numerous studies have shown that humans routinely underperceive risk and overestimate their ability to manage it. If drivers are inching up their speed, then designing streets around the 85th percentile is a problem.

Our Vehicles Aren’t Helping

Remember when going 65 mph meant your car sounded like it might literally break apart? Long gone are those days when noise, vibration, and lowness to the ground kept you more aware of your velocity. With the popularity of SUVs, crossovers, and light trucks, especially in North America, today’s vehicles are getting taller, larger, and heavier.

And more powerful, too—the average horsepower of American light vehicles in 2021 reached 252 hp, an 84 percent increase in nearly 50 years. With technological advances in engines and turbochargers, today’s passenger vehicles often exceed 300, 400, and even 500 horses. They now have so much power, drive so smoothly, and are so well-insulated that we can easily go 20 miles over the speed limit without realizing it. Electric vehicles are even quieter, and unlike combustion engines, their power delivery is instant and thrilling. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of safety when in fact, just the opposite is true.

Chill the Music and Don’t Be in Such a Hurry

The type of music we play in the car can influence how we drive. In a 2019 study conducted at the South China University of Technology, researchers found that drivers listening to loud music with higher beats per minute (like rock or techno) had higher heart rates, drove faster, were more distracted, and veered out of their lanes more often than drivers listening to lighter music with a slower tempo.

Last but not least, we speed because we’re simply in a hurry. We think speeding will save us time, but we grossly overestimate the gains. Fortunately, there’s a simple fix for this: Plan ahead, leave earlier, and don’t stress. What we reap in safety is more than worth it.

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