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Slow down! As deaths and injuries mount, new calls for technology to reduce speeding

A photo released by the North Las Vegas Police Department shows the Dodge Challenger that was travelling more than 100 miles an hour before a fatal crash in January 2022.
AP
A photo released by the North Las Vegas Police Department shows the Dodge Challenger that was travelling more than 100 miles an hour before a fatal crash in January 2022.

Tiffani May never saw it coming.

She was just a few minutes from home in North Las Vegas when a car came flying into an intersection at more than 100 miles an hour and crashed into hers.

"I remember getting hit, the sound of broken glass," May said. "I remember seeing fire. And thinking, if I didn't get out, my dog and I were gonna die right then."

Nine people were killed in the Nevada crash in January of last year. Seven were members of a single family who were riding together in a minivan, including four brothers younger than 18.

May survived the six-vehicle crash, but it changed her life. She hasn't given any interviews about it until now.

"I've been dealing with this from emotionally, spiritually, physically, cognitively, my entire being," May said. "And I'm grieving like so many things."

More than 40,000 people died in vehicle crashes in the U.S. last year, and speeding is a major reason why. Speed-related crashes accounted for roughly 12,000 deaths in 2021, the last year for which there are complete statistics, and hundreds of thousands of injuries.

Safety advocates say it's time for automakers to adopt new technology in cars to reduce speeding.

"We have a public health crisis, and we have to take action to prevent all of those fatalities and serious injuries," said Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB studied the Las Vegas crash, meeting last month to review its findings. And for the first time, the board called for U.S. automakers to install technology to reduce speeding in all new cars.

"We felt it was time to be more aggressive with what we think needs to be done, which is adoption of the technology in vehicles to prevent speeding," Homendy told NPR. "Nobody has a right to speed. Nobody has a right to break the law."

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How intelligent speed assistance works

The technology known as intelligent speed assistance can work in several ways. There's passive speed assistance, which notifies drivers when they're speeding, but doesn't force them to slow down. And there's a second type known as active speed assistance that prevents drivers from exceeding the speed limit.

Safety advocates say the U.S. lags behind Europe, where speed assistance technology is already widespread. It's set to become mandatorythere for all new passenger cars next year.

In the U.S. the NTSB can make recommendations, but it cannot force automakers to add speed assistance. And so far, the U.S. auto industry seems to be in no hurry.

"It's not a flat rejection. I think it's a slow adoption," said Matt Jones, an auto analyst with Truecar. He says U.S. automakers may be reluctant to add speed assistance because it would increase the cost of a vehicle for a feature drivers don't necessarily want.

"From the car makers, there may not be enough consumer sentiment asking for it. There may not be enough political pressure asking for it," Jones said. "Once people start asking for this, maybe it won't need to be a mandate. But until then, I think that's probably what it's going to take."

Federal regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could require automakers to add speed assistance technology, as their counterparts in Europe did. NHTSA is considering that possibility through a rule-making process it started last year, but no decisions have been issued.

"NHTSA always welcomes the NTSB's input and carefully reviews it—especially when considering potential regulatory actions," a NHTSA spokesman said in a statement.

Technology that caps the speed that vehicles can travel is already being deployed in New York City, which is testing it on a limited basis in its fleet of municipal vehicles.

"If this is a successful pilot, we want to see this go throughout every vehicle that we are using in our city fleet," Mayor Eric Adams said in announcing a pilot program last year.

The pilot has gone well enough the city announced last week it would expand to a total of 300 city vehicles, including 50 school buses. The city manages a fleet of more than 23,000 vehicles.

Still, there are lingering questions about how well the technology works in practice.

Speed assistance systems sometimes get confused in real-world settings, said Kelly Funkhouser, a vehicle technology expert at Consumer Reports. That's most apparent around complicated highway interchanges with multiple lanes and surface streets, where sensors can mistake the speed limit on one roadway for the limit on an adjacent one.

"That could lead to these types of technologies being troublesome or having errors we've experienced in our own testing," Funkhouser said. She argues the technology may need more development before it's deployed to actively regulate speeds on U.S. roads.

"A warning system is probably the way to go until this technology has matured," Funkhouser said.

The U.S. auto industry is in no rush to deploy it

A few automakers offer speed assistance technology in passenger cars in the U.S. But American automakers have mostly been quiet about it. The Big Three automakers all referred our questions to an industry trade group called the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.

"While vehicle technology can play a role, we've advocated for a continued emphasis on transportation policies that focus on driver education and awareness, strong laws and law enforcement, and infrastructure investment – and funding to support these safety initiatives," the group said in a statement.

Meanwhile, those same automakers routinely use speed as a selling point on TV in ads like this one for the Dodge Challenger — the same car the driver in the Las Vegas crash was driving last year when he killed 9 people, including himself.

Dodge's parent company, Stellantis, said in a statement that it extends its "sincerest sympathies to the family and friends of those whose lives were lost," while noting that "it remains the responsibility of all drivers to be alert and engaged in the driving task at all times. Our owner's manuals further urge drivers to follow all traffic safety laws."

Toxicology reports show the driver in the Las Vegas crash had cocaine and PCP in his system. He also had a long record of speeding violations, including a traffic stop just weeks before. But he was never identified as a repeat offender, the NTSB said, in part because some of those speeding violations were pleaded down to parking violations.

"The driving record was a stinger because he had just been pulled over right before the crash," said survivor Tiffani May.

Nearly two years later, May still uses a cane or a walker to get around. And her weeks are filled with medical appointments and physical therapy.

"It's devastating to go from being athletic to using assistive devices and being stared at people asking uncomfortable questions," May said. "I used to be really athletic. Now I can't even run. I can't stand for a long time. I can't walk long distances, or even sit in certain seats."

And those are just the physical injuries.

"There's a sound that plays in my head almost every day," May said. "I hear an overwhelming sound of women screaming. It feels like they say, 'the babies, the babies.' A very loud screeching, terrible sound."

Since the crash, May says she's learned a lot about roadway safety. She now works for Nevada's Office of Traffic Safety. And she advocates for better traffic safety systems – including treatment options for people who drive under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

"My hope is change," May said. "We don't have to die in car crashes or on our roadways. This is absolutely preventable."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
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