Speeds have increased, along with tickets issued according to highway patrol reports

Tim Hrenchir and Jennifer Stultz
Gannett
Kansas Highway Patrol has made a public request for drivers across the state to slow down. In Kansas, law enforcement officers like this one in Pratt County has seen a 68 percent increase in tickets issued during the pandemic than prior to 2020. Vehicle safety features decrease as vehicle speeds increase, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

A sharp surge in the number of people driving way too fast accompanied the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last March, says Kansas Highway Patrol Lt. Candice Breshears.

The KHP in 2020 issued 68% more tickets than it did the previous year for excessive speeding, which means driving 100 mph or more, Breshears said Monday.

"Everything just skyrocketed" and the trend has continued, she told The Topeka Capital-Journal in a phone interview.

Deaths on Kansas roadways increased last year to a preliminary/unofficial total of 425 from 412 in 2019, said Kim Stich, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile, last year brought decreased highway traffic in this state.

About 44.5 million vehicles per day traveled Kansas highways, compared to 49 million in 2019, Stich said. About 32.2 million vehicles used the Kansas Turnpike, compared to 39 million in 2019, said Kansas Turnpike Authority spokeswoman Rachel Bell.

A public request that drivers slow down was made Monday by KHP Superintendent Herman T. Jones, who teamed up to deliver that message with officials from the Iowa State Patrol, Nebraska State Patrol, Arkansas State Police and Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Discussions between officials with those agencies over the past year have had one common theme, which is the increase in excessive speeding, as officials from those agencies have talked with each other, Jones said.

“KHP is proud to partner with our neighboring states in reminding motorists of the dangers of excessive speeding and the need for us to all work together to make our state and region safe,” he said.

Breshears said citations for excessive speeding also increased last year, compared to the previous year, by 108% in Iowa, 89% in Arkansas, 82% in Missouri and 70% in Nebraska.

Kansas, Iowa, Arkansas, Missouri and Nebraska comprise Region 7 of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Breshears said in Monday's news release.

"Each state tracked the increase of excessive speeding in different ways, but every method told the same story: A year that felt incredibly long was also the fastest on the roads in recent memory," she said.

Breshears said that as  driving conditions improve with the weather, authorities are asking all motorists to do their part to keep the roads safe.

"Obey the posted speed limits, eliminate distractions, never drive impaired and always buckle up," she said.

Troopers in each state will continue to patrol day and night to enforce traffic safety laws and help motorists in need, Breshears added.

Even small speed increases can have huge impacts on crash outcomes and cancel the effectiveness of vehicle safety features, according to new crash tests by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and Humanetics. The organizations partnered to study the damage from crashes at three different impact speeds (40, 50 and 56 mph). The results showed slightly higher speeds were enough to increase the driver's risk of severe injury or death.

“Motorists often travel faster than posted speed limits. But, when officials raise limits to match those travel speeds, motorists drive even faster,” said Shawn Steward, AAA Kansas spokesman. “When speed limits increase, the protection provided by vehicle safety features is in doubt.”

Today, 41 states allow 70 mph or higher speeds on some roadways, including eight states that have maximum speeds of 80 mph or more. A 2019 IIHS study found that rising speed limits over the past 25 years have cost nearly 37,000 lives. AAA and IIHS urge policymakers to factor in this danger from higher speeds when considering speed limit changes.

"We conducted these crash tests to assess the effect of speeds on drivers and learned that a small increase could make a big difference on the harm to a human body," said Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "A speeding driver may arrive at their destination a few minutes faster, but is the tradeoff of getting severely injured or even losing one's life worth it, if a crash occurs?"

The AAA Foundation collaborated with IIHS and Humanetics to examine how speed affects the likelihood and severity of occupant injury in a crash. Three 2010 Honda CR-V EX crossovers were used because they represented the average age (11.8 years) of a typical vehicle on U.S. roadways and earned the top rating in the IIHS moderate overlap front test.

As the crash speed increased in the tests, researchers found more structural damage and greater forces on the crash dummy's entire body.

Vehicle safety improvements diminished

"Higher speed limits cancel out the benefits of vehicle safety improvements like airbags and improved structural designs," said Dr. David Harkey, IIHS president. "The faster a driver is going before a crash, the less likely it is that they'll be able to get down to a survivable speed even if they have a chance to brake before impact."

The study found that at the 40 mph impact speed, there was minimal intrusion into the driver's space. But at the 50 mph impact speed, there was noticeable deformation of the driver side door opening, dashboard and foot area. At 56 mph, the vehicle interior was significantly compromised, with the crash dummy's sensors registering severe neck injuries and a likelihood of fractures to the long bones in the lower leg. 

“Our crash test dummies are equipped with hundreds of sensors to measure the injury risk so that we understand the scientific limits of safety and injury prevention. Understanding that the risk of serious and permanent injury becomes significantly higher in crashes beyond statutory speed limits, clearly demonstrates why there are limits in the first place,” commented Jack Jensen, vice president of engineering at Humanetics.

At both 50 and 56 mph, the steering wheel's upward movement caused the crash dummy's head to go through the deployed airbag. This caused the face to smash into the steering wheel. Measurements taken from the dummy showed a high risk of facial fractures and severe brain injury.

One year after the COVID-19 pandemic upended plans for travelers in Kansas and throughout the world, there are new signs that travel dreams won’t be deferred. The weekly survey, Coronavirus Travel Sentiment Index, conducted by Destination Analysts and released March 8, 2021, found a majority of respondents ready to travel. This survey, which tracks how Americans feel about the pandemic and the safety of traveling, coincides with the steadily increasing requests for trip information being made to AAA travel agents.

“As the vaccine continues to roll out across the country, travel dreams are beginning to optimistically seem more realistic,” said Shawn Steward, AAA Kansas spokesman. “We just hope people slow down.”

Even more encouraging, an impressive 84% of those surveyed have at least tentative plans to travel in 2021. “The travel industry continues to see a parallel between the vaccine roll out and increased optimism among the traveling public, and a greater comfort level from travelers seeking to book for the summer or fall of this year,” said AAA Kansas’ Steward.