Some drivers across the nation apparently are cutting their speed slightly to squeeze more mileage out of $4-a-gallon gasoline, according to a USA TODAY review of preliminary state traffic data for the first five months of 2008.
Average speeds along some stretches of interstate highways were down in Tennessee, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin and unchanged on others, electronic monitoring showed.
Of 20 states providing data on speeding citations issued by state troopers, the number of tickets was down in 13 states – Arkansas, California, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Washington – and up in seven – Alabama, Connecticut, Idaho, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina and Ohio. The state agencies emphasized that the data are preliminary and apply only to roads patrolled by state police.
Transportation experts and some law enforcement professionals caution that it’s too soon to establish a link between gas prices and driving speeds.
“Even if state troopers find that people are slowing down, that doesn’t necessarily mean drivers are consciously driving slower to conserve on gas,” says Chandra Bhat, professor of transportation engineering at the University of Texas.
“It could be that gas prices are making people drive shorter distances, and when people travel shorter distances, speeds tend to be slower. Or it could be that people are downsizing to vehicles with less power, and less power means lower speeds. Or it could be that people are more wary and they don’t want to risk being ticketed,” Bhat says.
Says Lt. Scott Compton, spokesman for the Illinois State Police: “There has been no correlation between gas prices and citations.”
Driving 60 mph rather than 65 mph saves 20 cents a gallon, according to the Alliance to Save Energy. Evidence of drivers easing up on the gas is mostly anecdotal with some statistical underpinning:
• In North Dakota, troopers patrolling Interstate 94 have noticed drivers slowing down, says Capt. James Prochniak, regional commander of the North Dakota Highway Patrol. “Here in the rural heartland, people are slowing down to try and save gas,” he says.
• Washington state between 2006 and 2008 recorded a 1-mph drop in speeds on highways with 65- and 70-mph limits. There were no changes on highways posted at 60 mph.
• In Virginia, where the state monitors average speeds on 117 interstate segments, there were decreases between 2006 and 2008 on 67, increases on seven and no change on 43.
• In Wisconsin, average speeds on four-lane rural highways with 65-mph speed limits dropped 1-2 mph in April from April 2006. Troopers “report this is especially prevalent among the commercial motor vehicles, such as heavy trucks,” says Maj. Daniel Lonsdorf, director of the state patrol’s Bureau of Transportation Safety. “Many (troopers) have noticed a large decrease in very high speeds on these types of roads. They do not report similar reductions in average speeds of any noticeable significance on our rural two-lane roads.”
• In Tennessee in the 12 months ending in September, average speeds along urban interstates where the speed limit is 55 mph dropped from 69 mph to 66 mph, according to measurements along 323 miles. There were no shifts for highways with 70-mph limits.
An analysis of highways near the main airports in Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, however, showed no clear trend in average speeds at 9 p.m. in May compared with May 2007. The analysis was compiled by Traffic.com, which operates networks of traffic sensors for government and media clients.
Many commercial trucking companies, which already limit their drivers to 68 mph, are slowing them further, some to 60 mph, says Clayton Boyce, vice president of public affairs for the American Trucking Associations, which represents trucking companies.
It’s not just truckers, either. Toni Tucker, an operator with the Colorado Department of Transportation, says she started driving her 1997 Honda Civic more slowly this month to cut her fuel costs. “I’m saving a lot more,” she says. “Typically, I have to fill up two times a week as opposed to one now.”
Some police agencies, hit by budget cuts and high fuel costs, are patrolling less frequently, possibly producing fewer citations. “It would be a stretch to try to correlate the increase in gas prices with the decrease in speeding citations,” says Mike Browning, spokesman for the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
Speeding still prevalent
Analysis from selected states on drivers’ speeds:
• Connecticut: State troopers are reminding drivers that they get better gas mileage by slowing down, says Lt. Paul Vance, a spokesman for the Connecticut State Police. “We know from experience that speed can be a major contributor to crashes and, in addition, slowing down will save them money and fuel,” he says.
• Idaho: Rick Ohnsman, spokesman for the state police, says the issue isn’t how many people are speeding but how hard officers are working to catch them. “There’s never a shortage of speeders to catch at any time,” Ohnsman says. “It’s more how frequently we go out and work it.”
• Kentucky: “Most troopers said the rise in gas prices did not affect the number of citations,” says Sherry Bray, spokeswoman for the Kentucky State Police.
• Michigan: “While it appears there may be some areas of the state where some drivers are driving more slowly, speeding remains prevalent,” says Shanon Akans, a spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police.
“For every driver who may slow down a little, there is still another driver who for whatever reason (late to a business meeting, etc.) still exceeds the speed limit.”
Also, she adds: “The number of citations issued has been declining for the last couple of years as our staffing has dropped considerably, making comparisons from year to year unwise.”
•- Rhode Island: The state has analyzed speeds on sections of seven major highways, including Interstate 95 from 2005 through 2008.
“While there are natural fluctuations in the speed from year to year, overall we would say that the speeds over those four years have remained fairly constant,” says Dana Nolfe, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. “The average speed data does not support a marked increase or a decrease in average running speeds on these freeways.”
• Vermont: Sgt. Tara Thomas of the Vermont State Police says troopers are still finding people speeding. “If speeding tickets are down, we like to think it’s because of our enforcement and not because of gas prices,” Thomas says.
• Virginia: “We don’t see a significant trend in reduced speed due to gas prices,” says Jeff Caldwell, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Corinne Geller, Virginia State Police spokeswoman, sees a slightly different picture. “Anecdotally, yes, Virginia State Police are seeing some reduction in motorists’ speeds,” Geller says.
Katharine Lackey, Gwen Purdom, Andrew Seaman of USA TODAY contributed to this report.
By Larry Copeland, Paul Overberg, Nicholas Persac