The traffic signal on North Las Vegas’s North Commerce Street had been red for at least 29 seconds, but the Dodge Challenger did not slow down. Instead, it flew through the intersection with Cheyenne Avenue at 103 mph, almost three times the 35 mph speed limit. Carnage ensued.
The crash that occurred on January 29, 2022, was horrific. The Challenger, driven by Gary Dean Robinson, slammed into the right side of a Toyota Sienna minivan crossing the intersection. Robinson and his passenger were killed, as were all seven people in the minivan (including four children).
Erlinda Zacarias, the mother of four of the crash victims and sister to another, told the local CBS station that her family was returning from a visit to a park. “I kept calling everybody’s phone because all of them have phones and nobody answered me,” she said. Fearing the worst, she drove toward where she imagined her family might be and soon found the crash site. “I started screaming,” Zacarias said.
Over 100 Americans die in traffic collisions on an average day, but 9 fatalities from a single incident is exceptional. Crash investigations are typically handled by local authorities, but in this case, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also launched one of its own. In its findings and recommendations, which were released last week, NTSB placed blame on Robinson, whose body showed evidence of PCP, alcohol, and cocaine. Robinson also had a history of reckless driving, leading NTSB to cite “Nevada’s failure to deter the driver’s speeding recidivism.” Those findings and related recommendations were unsurprising.
But NTSB’s investigation summary also included something else: The agency recommended that automakers install technology on all new cars that can prevent reckless speeding—and, for the first time, called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to mandate it.
That is an excellent, overdue idea.
Concerns about speeding are as old as the automobile itself. In the years after World War I, automobile sales rose sharply—and pedestrian deaths surged, especially among children. Searching for a solution, safety reformers turned to devices known as speed governors (sometimes called speed limiters). Speed governors were already used to enhance machine efficiency, but the emergence of automobiles created a new potential use case: installing them inside cars to slow them down and reduce crashes. In 1923, Cincinnati residents voted on whether to require motor vehicles within the city’s boundaries to have speed governors set at 20 mph. Facing furious opposition from the auto industry, the proposal was defeated.
As far as I know, the Cincinnati referendum marked the last major effort to require speed governors on American cars to reduce crashes. (Ironically, such technology is now common on another, comparatively innocuous type of vehicle: Shared e-scooters, which are often capped at 15 mph.) Modern automobiles do use governors to limit engine damage, but the threshold is set absurdly high, often at 155 mph. Even safety-conscious Volvo allows its cars to reach 112 mph, 27 mph faster than the highest speed limit anywhere in the U.S.
Of course, most people will frequently drive a bit faster than they’re officially supposed to. But there is a world of difference between going a few miles over the posted speed limit and careening down a road at over 100 mph, as Robinson did in North Las Vegas last year. Unless they’re employed in emergency response, no one’s speedometer should be hitting the triple digits on public roads. Yet, it’s a regular occurrence: In 2020, California Highway Patrol issued 3,000 tickets per month to drivers who exceeded 100 mph.
Speeding is now a factor in almost a third of the crash deaths in the U.S. The traditional approaches to reducing that toll all have significant limitations. Police can issue tickets to individual drivers, but law enforcement can hardly be in all places at all times. Automatic speed cameras, which allow police to mail citations directly to vehicle owners, are more effective; but many states, such as New Jersey and Texas, have banned their use (and they’re far from ubiquitous even where they’re allowed). Another partial solution would be to reconfigure dangerously fast roads with narrower lanes and additional intersections that naturally lead drivers to slow down, but doing so nationwide would be prohibitively expensive—and it would do little to combat reckless speeding on highways and interstates that facilitate car traffic at speeds of 45 to 85 mph.
Jennifer Homendy, chair of NTSB, has lost patience with the standard set of options. “If we’re serious about addressing 43,000 fatalities on our roads last year, 11,000 [of them] due to speeding, then we have to be serious about the solutions,” she told me. (According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, 12,330 people died in the U.S. in speed-related crashes in 2021, the most recent year with available data.)
NTSB’s proposed solution: Adopting Intelligent Speed Assist (ISA), a modern and techier version of the speed governors that Cincinnati considered a century ago. Rather than preventing a vehicle from ever exceeding a given threshold, ISA uses geolocation to automatically reflect the legal limit on a given street or highway. “Passive” ISAs issue audible or haptic alerts to drivers who exceed the top programmed speed, hopefully compelling them to slow down. “Active” ISAs intervene in the car’s mechanics, often by requiring the driver to apply extra force on the accelerator. ISAs can be set to kick in a few miles above the posted speed limit, giving drivers the ability to go faster when, for instance, passing a vehicle in the slow lane.
Homendy thinks that the U.S. failure to adopt ISA is placing citizens at unnecessary risk. “Everyone else is ahead of us,” she told me. “If the auto manufacturers can do it in Europe, they can do it here. There is tech available right now that we know will save lives.”
NTSB has supported ISA in the past, including recommending last year that NHTSA, which has regulatory power over car design, add it to the criteria evaluated when calculating a car’s crash safety rating—thereby creating an incentive for automakers to install them. NHTSA did not adopt that proposal, but it did float the possibility in a Request for Comment about revisions to the crash test ratings that the agency issued last year.
Homendy is not satisfied. “What’s disappointing to me is that we’ve recommended this many times to NHTSA, but so far they’ve only committed to research it,” she said.
Last week, NTSB upped the ante by calling on NHTSA to require that ISA be installed on all new cars. The agency also recommended that NHTSA launch an education campaign to inform Americans about the value of speed-regulating technologies, a move that could forestall a backlash from drivers accustomed to flooring it. Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research at the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, supports the NTSB’s call for mandating ISA. “Regulation would get ISA into as many vehicles as possible as quickly as possible, making the greatest impact and saving the most lives,” she told me over email.
Asked for comment, a NHTSA spokesperson said, “NHTSA always welcomes the NTSB’s input and carefully reviews it—especially when considering potential regulatory actions.”
NTSB lacks the power to force automakers or NHTSA to adopt speed-limiting technology, but its full-throated recommendation adds to growing momentum. Last year, New York City began a groundbreaking pilot that entails installing ISA on 50 vehicles within the city’s fleet. Announcing that program, Mayor Eric Adams suggested potentially expanding it to include the city’s 30,000 motor vehicles, the largest municipal fleet in the country. “If this is a successful pilot,” he said, “we want to see this go through every vehicle that we are using.” Although even 30,000 cars would be a fraction of the more than 700,000 motor vehicles that travel through Manhattan’s central business district weekdays, a city fleet using ISA could produce outside safety benefits because a public vehicle adhering to the speed limit would force other drivers behind it to do so as well.
Automakers, for their part, have generally stayed mum about ISA, other than to complain about potential problems with the technology. That’s not surprising, since mechanically constraining car speed could jeopardize their pedal-to-the metal marketing pitches for certain brands (like the Dodge Challenger, which triggered the North Las Vegas crash). Asked for comment about NTSB’s new recommendations, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade association for the car industry, provided only a general statement: “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.”
Although car companies are, at best, lukewarm on ISA, they frequently tout potential safety benefits arising from their massive investments in developing autonomous vehicles. But, as critics have noted, it is not at all clear that AVs will offer a net safety improvement. And even if they eventually do, speed reduction technology offers a far cheaper, faster, and more certain approach to address America’s ongoing crisis in road safety.