"The attitude toward speeding today is the same attitude we had toward drinking and driving 30 years ago. It's just not seen as a big deal," says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va. "Everyone does it, but in fact, excessive speed is a factor in the deaths of 1,000 people on our roads every month."
Rader and other safety experts believe that to cut down on the high-speed fatalities, state and local police agencies should turn to a new set of automated speed enforcement tools.
One tool that has caught safety experts' attention is the so-called "speed camera." These cameras are similar to the "red-light cameras" used at roadway intersections at over 100 U.S. cities.
A laser or radar gun measures the speed of an approaching car. If it's above a set margin -- say, 10 mph above the posted limit -- the gun triggers an attached digital camera to snap a photo of the car's license plate. Using vehicle registration records, a speeding summons is then mailed to the car's registered owner.
According to Rader, such automated systems have proven effective overseas. In Australia, the number of speed violators was cut in half within the first three months of 1989 when such cameras were installed on its roadways.
Other automated systems that can be put to speed duty include electronic toll collection schemes. Since such toll systems automatically log when and where a driver's car enters and exits a freeway, it can easily provide a vehicle's speed information to highway police.
Although such automated speed monitoring systems are technically feasible, experts such as Rader note that the United States has been slow to adopt them to the nation's roadways.
"In the U.S , there isn't the political will to crack down on speeding," says Rader. "Speeding is not seen as a big safety problem."
Also besetting the implementation of such automated technology are concerns over privacy and potential abuse by authorities. Critics of red-light cameras, for example, question if such devices actually deter drivers from running red traffic lights -- or, are merely a way for cities to raise much needed funds.
Still, Rader believes that such issues will be ironed out. Already, he believes, the privacy issues are non-starters.
Privacy "is not an issue because we're not talking about general surveillance, we're talking about ticketing people who break the law," he says. "Generally, the courts have not found that there is a privacy issues [with traffic cameras]. There is no expectation of privacy when operating a vehicle on a public road."