Speed Kills

Small child on a fast motorcycle

I just saw another of those studies that answers a question us non-Ph.D types wouldn’t bother asking. In this case the question was, “Are higher speeds more dangerous?” The scientifically-validated answer: yes.

Small child on a fast motorcycle
For some, the need for speed starts young. Photo by Rich Moffitt.

No one should be surprised that that higher vehicle speeds lead to more deaths as well as more crashes in general. But what may be surprising are the many non-crashy ways speed kills.

I have, on occasion, had people say that they would like to ride a bike to work, but that they just don’t have the time. I generally smile and nod sympathetically, but the voice inside my head is asking, “Compared to whom? Do you only have 20 hours per day instead of the 24 I have?” If the person saying this seems genuinely interested in riding but doesn’t feel like they have time, I might review their options or give them another way to look at the time spent on their commute. But the importance of speed is tough to shake and a risk most are willing to take. (After all, not one person reading this post has ever actually been killed in a high-speed accident.)

But speed carries dangers you might not expect:

1. Increased Speed Means Increased Pollution

Forget the physics of wind resistance on a speeding car or bus. You already know that a fast moving vehicle burns more fuel and more fuel burn means more pollution. But faster moving cars also mean more cars (because it makes car driving look speedier) which results in more pollution. Pollution means more cases of asthma and other respiratory diseases which can cause death in and of themselves as well as increase risk of death due to obesity and heart disease—because you can’t exercise if you can’t breathe.

2. Speed Reduces Activity Levels

If I feel the need for speed, I’m going to drive a lot more because it seems so much faster. However, a 2004 study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that each extra hour of time spent in cars per day was linked to a six percent increase in the likelihood of obesity and all its attendant health dangers.

3. Speed Encourages Sprawl

When you can travel faster, you can live farther away. So how does spawl kill you? What was there before the sprawl? Probably farms that produce food that keep you alive. OK this may be a pretty remote concern for you, but remember reason #2—the further away you live, the more time you are spending in your car.

Also, the more time you are spending in your car, the less time you are spending in stress-reducing situations like playing games with your family, spending time with friends, or engaging in recreation. Remember, stress kills. Why would someone take on a commute of more than four hours per day? Because she can.

4. Speed Encourages Unhealthy Habits

Several recent studies have shown that people who feel like they don’t have enough time are far more likely to eat “fast” food, and to not take time for exercise. Anyone can recognize that this is a problem, how else do you explain a market for something called “speed meditation.”

Given all the dangers inherent in our modern quest for speed, taking time for a bike ride may be the best thing you can do for yourself. Don’t let the apparent “slowness” of two wheeled transportation fool you into a deadly speed trap.