Oregon -- The State of Speed

Trey Smith

A recent article by the Associated Press, featured on KGW Newschannel 8's web site, discusses the connection between an increase in drivers who exceed the speed limit and a decrease in the number of state troopers on Oregon roads.

Oregon citations for speeding at 90 mph and faster have increased 4 percent during the past five years, during a period when the number of speeding tickets overall dropped by 30 percent.

Complaints about aggressive driving, including tailgating and weaving in and out of traffic, also have increased. Speeding was the sole cause of 35 percent of all traffic fatalities in Oregon in 2003, the most recent year for which crash statistics are available. By contrast, alcohol was the sole cause of 25 percent of traffic fatalities. Seat belt use by drivers hovers around 92 percent.

Experts cite numerous reasons for the jump in speeding: drivers in a hurry to get where they are going; modern car engineering creating a deceptively safe-feeling and quiet ride; and, in Oregon, fewer troopers on the road to enforce higher speed limits on some sections of the interstate. Washington state, for instance, with 1.7 times Oregon's population, has 2.7 times the troopers -- 658 to Oregon's 241.

I can certainly attest to the lack of a decreased presence of Oregon State Troopers. Over the past 6 months, I've traveled throughout Oregon, Washington and Northern California going to job interviews. In both Washington and California, I've seen numerous state troopers patrolling the roads.

However, after a recent trip from Salem to Klamath, California, I did not see one Oregon State Trooper while covering over 500 Oregon miles during daylight hours over two days time. Not one! (I saw 7 state troopers in California in an area of less than 100 miles.)

Is it any wonder then that more drivers speed through Oregon? If there's little chance of being ticketed, most drivers won't give a second thought to driving as fast as they can.

  • David Wright (unverified)

    Interesting statistics.

    Here's another one to ponder: total traffic fatalities in Oregon dropped by 13% from 2003 to 2004, according to the Oregon State Police. That's in absolute terms (512 deaths down to 445), not the relative terms with which we typically measure highway safety (fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles) and which would show an even greater improvement.

    So I guess my question is, what's your point? That cutbacks in funding for OSP result in fewer tickets, and therefore a higher proportion of "high value" (higher speeds = higher fines) tickets are issued? A simple increase in the incidence of ticketing does not necessarily directly translate to an actual increase in speeding. It could mean that, but doesn't have to.

    If your point is that fewer patrols equals more speeding equals more fatalities (which is what it sounded like to me), the statistics don't seem to bear that out.

  • Trey (unverified)

    Ever increasing speed is dangerous. Not only does it lead to deaths but to injuries, vehicle damage, road rage and added stress. I'm glad to hear that fatalities are down -- in general, that's GREAT news! But I would bet it's not as wonderful news to the families of the 445 who died.

    It almost sounds like you're suggesting that 445 deaths is not significant. Are you suggesting that?

  • Justin (unverified)

    Honestly, Oregon has a lot more to worry about then people speeding. Especially, if speeding leads to fewer deaths.

  • David Wright (unverified)

    Well, 445 deaths is certainly not insignificant to the families of those 445 people, you're right about that.

    But when looking at state policy decisions, which I presume is the gist of your posting here (less OSP funding, therefore fewer troopers, therefore more speeding?) I must say that 445 people dying on Oregon roads, out of a population somewhere around 3.5 million give or take, is statistically insignificant (it's about 0.013% of the population). It's not that 445 fatalities aren't important, just that in the grand scheme of things Oregon has higher priorities for its limited resources.

    Also, I was trying to make a point about drawing unsupported inferences from a limited set of statistics. Listing the stats about number of tickets issued, and the proportion of fatalities caused by speed, without some additional supporting information to put those numbers in context does not actually make the case that "ever increasing speed is dangerous." It may be that higher speeds lead to more road rage and stress -- or perhaps the opposite is true. And the statistics cited don't show that there are more people speeding, just that more people are being ticketed for excessive speeding. An overall increase in speeding is only one possible explanation for that. Another might be, as I suggested before, limited resources for OSP and thus more concentration on high-value tickets.

    And, anyhow, if there has been an overall increase in speeding, it hasn't negatively impacted the safety of Oregon's roads, if traffic fatalities have decreased at the same time. I wouldn't go as far as Justin to claim that speeding causes fewer deaths. But it would seem that at least speeding does not cause more deaths overall, as far as we can tell. So whatever you'd like to spend limited OSP and/or ODOT funds on in an effort to improve road safety, the most effective use of such funds may not be to increase speed limit enforcement. We just don't know from the data at hand.

  • (Show?)

    as a statistical wonk by vocation, I have to endorse David's points here. I'm also curious as to WHERE on I-5 and I-84 these superspeeders were being caught. If they're out between Pendleton and Baker, doing 100 is a lot different than between Troutdale and Gresham.

  • phriedom (unverified)

    David said:"...cutbacks in funding for OSP result in fewer tickets, and therefore a higher proportion of "high value" (higher speeds = higher fines) tickets are issued?" and that is incorrect. It isn't just a higher proportion, it is a higher absolute value despite fewer troopers. Also from that article: "Speeding was the sole cause of 35 percent of all traffic fatalities in Oregon in 2003...By contrast, alcohol was the sole cause of 25 percent" I'd imagine that a combination of the two probably outranks the the both of them.

    So anyways, speeding is more statistically significant than driving under the influence. I think it deserves a comparable amount of attention.

  • David Wright (unverified)

    Phriedom, what I said was not really incorrect, though you are right that the absolute number of 90+ MPH tickets increased by 4%. But of course, since total tickets decreased by 30%, that means that the proportion of tickets written that are for higher speeds/higher fines obviously went up dramatically. Thus, fewer tickets (total) and a higher proportion of large-fine tickets, as I said.

    Which does not in any way alter my point that writing more tickets does not directly mean that more speeding is going on, just that more tickets are being written. It could be that there are more speeders, or it could mean that the focus has shifted to cracking down on higher-speed offenders (hence greater revenue). We don't know which it is based on this data. We don't even know how the total number of speeding tickets (including those under 90 MPH) has changed, if at all. Perhaps the total number of speeding tickets written has declined? That information would certainly be relevant here.

    I'm glad you mentioned the contrast between speeding as the sole cause, and alcohol as the sole cause, of traffic fatalities. We don't know whether that percentage increased or decreased relative to other years, unfortunately, based on the data at hand. It is entirely possible that the relative percentages have shifted from alcohol to speed, as a result of more effective drunk driving enforcement. For example, if nothing else changed but the number of alcohol-related fatalities declined, then of course the alcohol percentage would drop and the speeding percentage would rise. This does not necessarily indicate an increase in speeding-related fatalities. It could merely reflect a decrease in alcohol-related fatalities.

    Again, the data is incomplete. I'm just pointing out hypothetical (but entirely reasonable) alternative scenarios that would fit the data we know about so far, that don't necessarily point to an increasing actual problem.

    Based on the information in the OSP link I provided earlier, however, which claimed that about half of all fatalities involved high speed, and more than one-third involved impaired drivers, if we take away the 35% and 25% numbers for "sole cause" for speed and alcohol, that would leave at most about 8-10% of fatalities where the factors were combined (assuming that all of the multi-cause alcohol-related fatalities also involved speeding). So the combination of factors presumably would not come close to outranking either factor individually.

    I don't know that it's valid to claim that speeding is more statistically significant than driving under the influence. All you can say is what was already said, that in the case of a fatality it's more likely that speed rather than alcohol was involved. However, to find out whether speed is more likely to actually cause a fatality, you'd have to look at the relative incidence of speeding versus drunk driving.

    Using just the 35%/25% "sole cause" numbers, here's an example for you. Out of 100 traffic fatalities, that would indicate that 35 were caused by speeding, while 25 were caused by drunk driving. But if (just for an illustrative example, point being we don't know the right numbers) there had been 100 people driving drunk (resuling in the 25 fatalities) and 1,000 people speeding (resulting in the 35 fatalities), then clearly drunk driving is statistically FAR more significant than speeding. The odds of causing a fatality using those numbers would be 1 in 4 for alcohol, but only about 1 in 28 for speeding.

    Without knowing how many people speed versus driving drunk, we don't know which is more significant. But I can tell you from experience, I've seen a whole hell of a lot more people obviously speeding than obviously impaired. If I had to guess, I'd say it probably is at least a factor of 10-to-1 if not a great deal higher. Which would mean, if that's true, that speeding is far less statistically significant than driving under the influence.

    Any police officers out there want to chime in?

  • Trey (unverified)

    David, You've made some valid points re the lack of comparative statistics.

    I didn't write this short entry with the idea that it would spawn much of a debate. It was more an attempt to shine a light on the fact that Oregon doesn't have many troopers on the road these days.

    I think most people would agree that doing a lot of things in a very fast or speeded up manner tends to cause unintended consequences.

    If you're in a rush while cooking, your recipe often doesn't turn out as well as it would if you took your time.

    If you rush doing your homework or a report for your job, it's more likely you'll miss something important.

    If you rush out the door to work or a meeting, you are more likely to forget to take something with you.

    Conversely, people who tend to rush when they drive are more apt to not be as safe. This may result in more accidents (maybe more injuries, but less deaths -- maybe not) or, at least, it will result in more complaints from other drivers -- the link to the full article does mention that driver complaints have increased significantly.

  • phriedom (unverified)

    I think it is always good to scrutenize statistics, especially when you've only got one or two and they are out of context. For example, I think the stat on number of tickets is only for the OSP, while the stat on fatalities may be statewide, or it might be just on state highways.

    That said, I think the most likely cause for the increase of high-speed tickets in the face of a big reduction in troopers AND an increase in complaints of reckless and high-speed driving is: more people are driving faster. The theory that fewer troopers are more focused on catching higher-revenue tickets doesn't seem plausible to me without some evidence that there have been big changes in the way troopers work. Do you think there are more manhours devoted to traffic enforcement than there were before the cuts? Do you think the troopers used to ignore the 90mph+ speeders before, or just give them a warning and now they are more motivated?

    I don't want to belabor the point but I do think it is a reasonable conclusion that more people are driving faster. But I think the real question is: what are the consequences of fewer troopers? And is it worth more money to have more of them? And no, two or three stats even in context won't answer that.

connect with blueoregon