Is there public policy to balance our need for speed with our right to safe roads?
by Shannon Newton
Confession: I like to drive fast. During the first week of the recent 92nd General Assembly, I was pulled over speeding on I-430. Sometimes I apply make-up or eat a cheeseburger while driving too fast. Obviously, I make an effort to drive the speed limit, avoid my phone and operate safely more often than not. But we are all guilty.
During the regular session, I had a front row seat to several important transportation conversations. Arkansas passed the largest highway funding plan in the state’s history. Legislators approved bills encouraging the adoption of safety technology for fleets of employee and independent drivers. Distracted driving laws were debated, and speed limits were increased.
Representing the trucking industry, I advocate for policies that will ensure the safest workplaces possible for trucking employees. For professional truck drivers, those workplaces are shared public spaces–our state’s highways.
All the decisions made around transportation this legislative session will have some impact on the environment where trucking goes to work every day. The additional highway funding will improve the 25 percent of state roads that are in failing condition and the 750+ bridges that are categorized as structurally deficient. The new law that will allow trucking companies to invest in progressive safety technology while protecting independent driver status will remove barriers to entry for carriers who want to use the safest tools available. My industry listens to the discussions and decisions on Arkansas roads because they will affect our drivers, and if truck drivers are more or less safe at work after this session, then so is everyone who shares the roads with them.
In some of the discussions, legislators were tasked with finding a balance between public safety and personal responsibility or freedom. For example, when Sen. Blake Johnson filed a bill to make Arkansas’ distracted driving laws comply with federal guidelines, a seat belt measure was attached. While the original bill tightened distracted driving rules for drivers under 21, it proposed a seat belt violation be moved from a primary offense to a secondary offense.
Currently, law enforcement can pull someone over for not wearing a seat belt. However as a secondary offense, seat belt usage would still be required, but police officers could only issue a citation for not wearing a seat belt if they pull you over for some other offense, like speeding on I-430.
Experts from Arkansas State Police argued that research shows the states with secondary seat belt laws have a 9 percent lower seat belt usage rate than states with primary laws. And Arkansans already use seat belts below the national average (79 percent compared to 90 percent). The annual costs of demoting the offense from primary to secondary was estimated to be 31 lives a year, 350 more injuries, and a $74 million economic impact to the state in medical costs, higher insurance premiums, loss of productivity and lower Medicaid savings.
After listening to the debate, legislators decided to drop the change to the seat belt rules. While it might seem like the only person potentially harmed by not wearing a seat belt is the person who chooses to take that risk, the community still bears the weight of that decision in less obvious ways.
The legislature also debated increasing the maximum speed limit to 75 miles per hour. Travelling faster reduces reaction times and raises the risk of more traffic crashes, with more fatalities and serious injuries. Once again, data was presented that shows every five miles increase in speed increases the number of fatal accidents. Unlike the seat belt discussion, after legislators listened to testimony, they decided to support the increase in the speed limit.
Representing their constituents who want to drive faster, they voted the will of the people trading increased speed for precious reaction seconds as we navigate around faster vehicles. We all want to get to where we are going faster, and I am not special in that way. I guess that I am also not special in that I need deadlines to make me finish a project or I need a cancellation policy to keep me from bailing on a dentist appointment. Often, we need a 65 mph sign and a police car waiting down the road to keep us honest. Sometimes, we need to be protected from ourselves.
Looking back at the transportation debates, I know Arkansas drivers will be affected by those decisions that impact driving behaviors for better and worse. How do we navigate the public’s request to go a little faster even if that will lead to more crashes? How can we create policy that will protect us from our own and other drivers’ unsafe behaviors?
I don’t have the answer, but it’s worth slowing down to have the conversation.
Shannon Samples Newton is president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, working on behalf of an industry that helps drive the Arkansas economy.