Experts say driving fast catches up with lead-foots in dangerous ways Speeding described as bad habit, frequent cause of fatal wrecks

May 22, 1998|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

No one can accuse David Read of being a slowpoke, although he certainly hopes that someone will one day.

The 44-year-old pension consultant has an inch-thick folder of court papers documenting the many speeding tickets he has accumulated in several states during the past decade.

This doesn't make him proud. "I am a responsible citizen otherwise. I don't cheat on my taxes. I don't kick my dog. But I am a lead-foot," he said.

Although few can say they've never exceeded a speed limit, Read is among those drivers for whom speeding is a habit. His experiences shed light on a practice that experts say is common and dangerous.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, speeding is one of the most frequent causes of traffic crashes nationwide. In 1996, speeding-related crashes killed 13,000 people, almost 100 of them in Maryland. An average of 7,800 vehicles a year in the state are involved in crashes primarily caused by speeding or driving too fast for weather or road conditions.

Although chronic, high-speed drivers might be a minority, experts say that most drivers go too fast at one time or another.

"Drive to Washington while observing the speed limit and see how many people pass you. The answer is, 'Everyone,' " said Stephanie Faul of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

"Whatever speed limit is set, many drivers will allow themselves 5 mph over that limit," said Patricia F. Waller, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

The reasons for speeding vary as greatly as the folks who do it. Popular wisdom holds that speeding is a sign of a hurried, harried society, one in which breaking the rules of social behavior has become common.

Americans' fascination with fast cars -- and the national repeal of the 55 mph maximum speed limit -- also may encourage the lead-footed.

"The reason most people speed is they cut themselves short of time," said Liz Scarborough, a driving instructor at the Towson-based B & E Driving School. "I always end the class by telling people, 'You can save yourself a lot of hassle if you set your alarm clock 15 minutes earlier.' "

But for at least some chronic speeders, running late is not the main reason they go too fast. Some like higher speeds, while others want every trip to take as little time as possible.

'Comfortable at higher speed'

Speeding is a trait of "aggressive" drivers, although not all speeders fit that definition -- drivers who, for instance, regularly tailgate, run red lights or cut off other drivers.

"I'm not a Type A person, but I am a Type A driver," said Read, who lives near Perry Hall. "I feel comfortable at the higher speed."

He drives to visit clients for his job at a financial services firm, racking up 40,000 miles a year in his red Ford Contour.

Sometimes he speeds to shave time off a trip, though he knows that the savings -- counted in minutes rather than hours -- are small and the risks high. "There is no tangible benefit. It's more of a game to help pass the time," he acknowledged.

Read got his first ticket as a young driver and, except for a five-year period when he didn't drive as much, has been getting two or more tickets a year in recent years.

He has a radar detector but acknowledges the obvious: It isn't doing him much good.

Excuses in court

How does he keep his license? Read said he goes to court on Maryland tickets and pleads guilty with an explanation: "I was going with the flow of traffic" or "I drive for a living." Most judges reduce the charge and number of points against his license, he said.

For example, a Baltimore County judge reduced a charge last year for going 78 mph on the Baltimore Beltway, a 55 mph zone, to a conviction for going 63 mph. By doing that, the judge cut the number of possible points against Read's license from two to one.

If a driver accumulates eight points, his license can be suspended. For 12 points, it can be revoked.

Course didn't work

A 1996 ticket for going 76 mph in a 65 mph zone on Interstate 70 in Howard County landed Read in a "driver improvement program," a six-to-eight-hour weekend course ordered by judges and offered by private companies.

There, he watched videos and listened to lectures about driving do's and don'ts. "It was a waste of time in that my behavior hasn't modified as a result of it," he said.

"The biggest impact on me ought to be the substantial fines, but it hasn't been," said Read, who said he spends up to $500 a year on fines and court costs.

Speeders lack fear of crash

He said his speeding has never contributed to a crash, but he knows the odds say that it could. "If I hit something going 80 mph, I'm likely to hurt myself or someone else. I'm aware of the laws of physics," he said.

In essence, the higher a car's speed, the farther it will travel while the driver reacts to an emergency and the longer it will take to stop. If the vehicle hits something, the crash will be more severe at higher speeds.

To help curb his speeding, Read uses cruise control to lock in a lower speed.

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