'How am I driving?' Not well enough

Manslaughter case against congressman is unusual, but running stop signs isn't.

It's a safe bet Bill Janklow regrets those flippant remarks about his tendency to speed.

The US representative and former South Dakota governor - to be arraigned Friday on second-degree manslaughter and three other charges after a crash that killed a motorcyclist last month - has often treated the habit as a socially acceptable vice.

As recently as June he joked about it at a hearing in Nebraska, and his 1999 comments to the South Dakota legislature, when he was governor, have gotten lots of airtime lately: "Bill Janklow speeds when he drives. Shouldn't, but he does. When he gets a ticket, he pays it. If someone told me I was going to jail for two days for speeding, my driving habits would change."

Now Janklow could face far more than two days in prison: up to 10 years if he's convicted.

But his case - and his cavalier attitude - may be emblematic of a deeper problem in America: a culture that often turns a blind eye to, or even openly tolerates, risky driving.

On the one hand, say experts, attitudes toward drunk driving and seatbelts have shifted dramatically. But speeding is another story. Since Congress repealed the national 55 m.p.h. speed limit law in 1995, drivers have been going faster, according to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And with higher speeds, deaths go up. (The overall number of fatalities has stayed fairly steady around 42,000 for several years.)

If Americans tolerate a prominent official joking about his lead foot, many remain wary of cracking down on what's often seen as a God-given right.

"In the Rocky Mountain West, it's almost viewed as patriotic," says Chuck Hurley, vice president of the transportation research group at the National Safety Council, with a rueful laugh. "You can speed without any penalty whatsoever - legal or fatal - literally thousands of times, as Governor Janklow did. ... If you look around anywhere right now, the number of people doing the speed limit is a fraction of the people on the road."

By itself, speeding is actually one of the less risky road behaviors. But it lessens reaction time, raises the risk of injury, and when combined with other careless actions - like running a stop sign, as Janklow did when he raced through the rural intersection at 70 m.p.h. on Aug. 16 - it becomes particularly dangerous. Some 32 percent of fatal crashes last year involved speeding of some kind, and about 1 in 5 occurs at or near intersections.

It's one reason several states have passed "aggressive driving" laws, increasing penalties for those caught in violations such as speeding, weaving in and out of traffic, or tailgating two or three times in a short period.

"There seems to be more public acceptance for doing something about aggressive driving than just speed," says Barbara Harsha, director of the Governors' Highway Safety Association in Washington.

But key to any program that targets speeding or red-light running, she says, is a mix of enforcement and public information - letting people know laws will be enforced, followed by crackdowns and letting people know how enforcement went.

In Janklow's case, some have been less willing to see the crash as simply a tragic accident given the former governor's history of flouting the law. Between 1990 and 1994, according to the Associated Press, he received a dozen speeding tickets. And at the intersection where Janklow's car reportedly ran the stop sign and killed Randolph Scott, a woman told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Janklow ran the sign and nearly crashed into her family in December. She reported it to the police, she says, and was told Janklow was the driver.

Some motorists, of course, take issue with the idea that tougher enforcement is needed at all. Such crackdowns aren't about safety, insists Eric Skrum of the National Motorists Association in Wisconsin. "This is nothing more than generating revenue for the state."

In any case, speed isn't the issue, he says. He believes the roads would be safer if some limits were raised, allowing a smoother traffic flow. "If you set a reasonable law in place, you're going to have safer driving."

The question is knowing when a law is reasonable. A number of states have been cracking down on traffic offenders in "safety corridors" - accident-prone stretches - by doubling fines, raising fines in work zones, or targeting repeat offenders like Janklow. Michigan is starting to make penalties progressively worse as points accumulate on a driving record.

But in Texas, a bill to raise fines for speeders driving more than 25 m.p.h. over the limit went nowhere this year. West Texas lawmakers argued that it was unfair, despite the fact that drivers could still fly down many rural interstates at 94 m.p.h. without a $500 fine kicking in.

"People here drive at astronomical speeds," says Dave Willis, director of the Center for Transportation at the Texas Transportation Institute. "They blow through stop signs all the time because they think they can get away with it." Mr. Willis favors a solution he admits would be unpopular: camera systems that photograph anyone driving fast or ignoring red lights. With police stretched thin, they would make enforcement more consistent, he says, and studies show they deter speeding.

That's why Scottsdale, Ariz., put cameras at intersections and dangerous stretches in 1997. The state was No. 1 in red-light running, and speeding was getting out of control, according to Bruce Kalin of the Scottsdale Police Department. Since then, intersection crashes, speeding tickets, and red-light tickets have all gone down. The process is supported by the vast majority of Scottsdale citizens.

What Kalin and safety proponents share is a conviction that crashes like Janklow's could easily be avoided. "We could save thousands and thousands of lives if we could just get people to drive responsibly," he says.

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