Why Are Carmakers Allowed to Sell Products That Go Faster Than 100 MPH?

Dash cam footage from a West Midlands Police unit caught a U.K. driver going 115 mph in a 30 mph zone. Photo: Sky News
Dash cam footage from a West Midlands Police unit caught a U.K. driver going 115 mph in a 30 mph zone. Photo: Sky News

A reckless driver made headlines in the UK city of Birmingham this week after he topped out at speeds of 115 mph on local streets while fleeing a traffic stop.

The driver, 30-year-old Kamar Farooq, eventually crashed into another car (the report doesn’t note any injuries, miraculously). He will be jailed for two-and-a-half years and banned from driving for 10, according to Sky News.

At the end of the story, a local police officer notes “the outcome could have been much worse” because the BMW Farooq was driving is “a high performance vehicle.”

Not only did Farooq exceed the 30 mph speed limit by nearly a factor of four, the BMW could have gone much faster.

The question is why? Why are BMW and every other carmaker allowed to sell vehicles designed to travel at speeds that are inherently dangerous and, in the U.S. at least, illegal on any public roadway?

Car companies must find some marketing and sales advantage in equipping their products with such excessive power. There’s even a Ford Focus model that tops out at 165 mph.

In the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is responsible for automobile safety standards. But carmakers have a great deal of influence over the NHTSA.

In a 2015 USA Today piece, two environmental watchdogs described the revolving door between the agency and the automobile industry. The NHTSA’s ability to pursue public safety and environmental goals has been compromised over the years as dozens of officials have left the agency for lucrative jobs with auto companies.

Nor is there any great public pressure to regulate the destructive power of cars. Despite the rising death toll on American streets and highways, we allow car companies to design products that can cause great harm and no one even questions it.

More recommended reading today: Lisa Schweitzer considers an under-appreciated factor behind opposition to congestion pricing. And Jarrett Walker at Human Transit says people are drawing the wrong conclusions about declining transit ridership from an influential paper published by the Mineta Transportation Institute.

  • Joe R.

    The difference between 70 mph and 110 mph on an urban street is merely a matter of semantics. Maybe 99.9999% of those hit at 110 mph will die, versus “only” 99.99% at 70 mph.

    I assume (or at least hope) that everyone here at least agrees the only places vehicles should conceivably be allowed to go speeds like 110 mph is on rural limited access expressways. Those roads can be designed to be safe at such speeds based on lines of sight, curvature, and general traffic levels. Such speeds anywhere else aren’t safe, at least under human driving.

  • Joe R.

    Unsafe driving needs to be addressed with much, much stricter licensing laws. The test should be difficult enough so that 75% of more of people should never be able to get a license. Many of those can be weeded out right in the beginning due to factors like poor coordination, low intelligence, poor spatial perception, etc. The rest will go through a rigorous training program. Every few years they would need to be recertified. You might also have additional training for cars with higher power-to-weight ratios.

    What’s deadly is cars which are as powerful as race cars used to be, combined with the ridiculous idea that nearly everyone should be able to obtain a driver’s license. Only the best and most determined should drive. It should be an exclusive club where everyone prides themselves on honing their skills. Right now it’s more like a club of the mentally challenged.

  • Joe R.

    There should be no non-expert drivers on the streets. That’s a big part of the problem. Training should resemble what fighter pilots go through, with only the best being granted the privilege of driving.

  • Joe R.

    There are plenty of rewards for people that don’t endanger others. I’m all for fast vehicles and much higher legal highway speed limits BUT only if we greatly increase driver training. Let’s start by weeding out the bottom 75% who really can’t drive at all regardless of training. That leaves at most 25% of the population who might qualify to enter a driver training program. Of that 25% a fair number wouldn’t consider it worth the bother or expense. Some other number will fail the training at some point. Probably in the end only 5% to 10% of the population will have driver’s licenses, maybe even only 1%. They will also need to be periodically recertified.

    This would allow those willing to go through with the requisite training to have these powerful vehicles, and to use them in the way they were meant to be used. Everyone else will take the bus or train or be driven.

    You want to give people potentially dangerous toys then that’s fine if those people are willing to go through the needed training. Same with guns. You want to carry all sorts of weapons, then you go through something like military boot camp.

    If someone wants a nice bottle of wine, or good weed, as a reward, at least that has no potential negative effects on me. Therefore, the levels of regulation can be far less.

  • midringrider

    I want the state to protect me from obvious fools who would endanger others for their own thrills. I have the right to be safe from children playing with toys they can’t control. Which is what people like you are.

  • JZ71

    Nope – I skew libertarian. Don’t tell me what to do and I’ll stay out of your life. Government needs to stick to the basics, not become a nanny state!

  • JZ71

    Your choice, and I can respect that. But why do you see the need to impose your choices on everybody else?!

  • JZ71

    This weekend, there were two examples, on the news, of drivers backing into a) pedestrians on a sidewalk, and b) a laundromat, because they hit the accelerator instead of the brake and kept pushing! Neither SUV was particularly powerful, yet they both did significant damage. Was this a design issue or an operator issue? How do we keep drivers from stupid things?

  • JZ71

    Combined with true consequences for driving without a license – see the number of drivers who “lose” their licenses due to DUI’s or too many points, yet continue to drive . . .

  • Joe R.

    You might say neither SUV was particularly powerful, but I’ll bet both were capable of matching the acceleration race cars had in the 1940s. If we’re going to allow universal driving where some large percentage of drivers are stupid or poorly trained enough to do things like hit the wrong pedal, then we need to ensure vehicles can’t do lots of damage when that happens. If you consider it might take you a few seconds before you even realize what happened, in those few seconds you could already be going 40, 50, even 60 mph. That’s why I want much lower legal power-to-weight ratios along the lines of 20 HP/ton, perhaps even 10 HP/ton for inherently more dangerous vehicles like SUVs. Think instead what might have happened if those SUVs only had 20 HP. They would have accelerated more like golf carts, and perhaps the driver would have stopped them before they reached the sidewalk.

    If one wants to buy a vehicle with higher power-to-weight ratios then they should have to go through additional training. Also, the extra power would only be available on limited access expressways. Can’t think of any sane urban driving cycle where 10 to 20 HP/ton isn’t totally adequate all the time.

  • JZ71

    Yet many fatal crashes are not caused by excessive speed, but by chemical impairment (DUI), inattentive driving (texting), inexperience (teenagers), incompetence (elderly drivers), driving too fast for conditions (yet below the speed limit), and/or running red lights, all combined with a lack of seat belt use. Would we be better off (more successful) if texts were blocked above 5 mph, if seat belt and ignition interlocks were required, and/or human operators banned completely (when autonomous vehicles become a reality)? Addressing one “symptom”, while ignoring all the others, doesn’t seem very smart! http://www.huffingtonpost.com/laiza-king-/top-15-causes-of-car-accidents_b_11722196.html

  • JZ71

    So your answer to how do we keep drivers from doing stupid things is to dumb down the system to the lowest common denominator?! Because 0.000001% are incapable of doing something that 99.999999% CAN do?

  • Guy Ross

    Nothing. There is literally nothing you can do to keep this or any other death from cars from happening.

    Wait, I take that back. I just came across these: https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/df7f8f461bdcda542e44f4d795e10fb4e3b956847fba986b2c42c9a17256ea7a.jpg

  • Guy Ross

    Dumb down or build smart. Some cities are starting to figure this out.

  • Frank Kotter

    I can’t tell if this is sarcasm or not. I mean, it must be, but…..

  • Michael

    That’s a good question to ask yourself and I would love to know the answer.

    I would like to be able ride a golf cart around my town. It wouldn’t hurt anyone and yet it is imposed on me that I cannot.

  • JZ71

    Because the government is trying to protect you from getting injured (by faster, likely inattentive, traffic)? Because a majority of the drivers would see it as an impediment (much like a bicycle) and have made their concerns known to local government? Because state law (in your state) says no? Bottom line, local regulations can be changed to meet local conditions, but complaining about it online won’t be very successful: https://iltva.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/List-of-States-allowing-Golf-Cars-on-Public-Roads.071013.pdf

  • Joe R.

    More like 80+% are incapable of driving the type of vehicles which exist now.

    Higher licensing standards are a great idea also. However, we need to decide what to do with the supermajority of the population who really can’t safely drive anything much more powerful than a golf cart. Do we just tell them they can’t drive at all, or let them drive but only vehicles with very low power-to-weight ratios? These people cannot safely drive the kinds of vehicles currently being produced.

    We can also protect every inch of sidewalks in bollards, although that still doesn’t people in other cars from these people’s stupidity.

  • AMH

    I’ve seen the same in some Ubers here.

  • AMH

    Isn’t there a graduated licensing system for motorcycles based on engine size? Why can’t there be the same thing for vehicle power and size? (It’s also ridiculous that someone can drive a house on wheels without any training.)

  • JZ71

    Unfortunately, it’s not that cut and dried. Most people drive well enough, in most situations, to avoid crashing. Imposing higher standards would always be a good thing, but you/we/society need to make a valid cost-benefit argument for doing so. Heck, we can’t even agree (in most states) that wearing a seat belt should be a primary or secondary offense or that drivers over 75 need to be tested more frequently. We already have laws against careless driving, inattentive driving, using your phone while driving and/or yielding to pedestrians in marked crosswalks, yet they’re rarely enforced, at least to the degree that it starts to change driver behavior. I’d much rather deal with trying to regulate guns over vehicles, any day, but that’s as big, if not bigger, “lost cause” / Quixotic pursuit!

  • Joe R.

    The problem with driving is that it’s one of those things where it doesn’t take much skill to keep a vehicle on the road, but it takes expert levels of skill to deal with the rare crisis situations which actually kill people. Or in short, everyone driving needs to have the reflexes of a fighter pilot and the sixth sense of an experienced race car driver in order to deal with those rare situations.

    The alternative is what we have. We trust to luck that people will be able to handle things. The end results of that trust is 35K or 40K deaths annually in the US, over a million worldwide, and untold millions of severe injuries.

    To me rather than waste time on what’s probably a lost cause of improving driver training, I’d rather just invest in safer ways to travel. At the same time we could start restricting driving in the places where it causes the most harm, like cities. Or we can hope autonomous vehicles will save the day.

  • Neel B4 Zod

    How about this – Argue IN FAVOR of making cars for consumers that can go over 100mph. Tell us why we should have cars that go over 100mph.

    It’s like gun rights – you can own a gun. You can even own a very powerful gun. You can’t own a 25mm auto-cannon.

    You can own a car, even a very fast car. You can’t own a car that can operate at a level which is unsafe on any road other than a closed track.

  • Neel B4 Zod

    Moral of the story – douchebags like chatting with other douchebags about how douchebaggey they are.

    I don’t give a rip if you are awesome. You can’t react to all the not-awesome people around you doing 110mph. If a non-awesome person does something not-awesome next to you while you’re doing 110, you are going to make it worse. Your friend is still a human being, they are limited, and 110 is unsafe.

  • Neel B4 Zod

    Someone please argue IN FAVOR of having cars that can do over 100mph, when the highest speed limit in the country is 85. Why do we need OVER 100mph. Argue in FAVOR of super-fast cars – I want to understand why having everyday cars in everyday situations with the ability to do 100+ is a POSITIVE thing.

  • fpfrainaguirre

    Let me add a different thought. Has anyone heard of conserving gasoline when driving. A 50-55 mph has been given as a speed to get optimum gas mileage. Speed also can and does have a deleterious effect on our environment–the very air we breathe.There are schools located too near highways where one can find elevated numbers of children with respiratory problems, eg: asthma. But then, those children don’t really count do they? I want to get where I’m going as fast as I can regardless of who gets hurt!

  • Joe R.

    If the goal is to save energy then it makes more sense to design vehicles which look like this:

    https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2008/5/28/524178/-

    Riding around in boxes, and then limiting those boxes to 55 mph to “save energy”,strikes me as patently ridiculous. Start with a more efficient shape before you even consider reducing speed. In fact, maybe if we didn’t have such low speed limits in this country cars might as a matter of course be designed to be more efficient at all speeds just because it’s uneconomical to try to make a barn door go fast.

  • Joe R.

    Given that it’s a huge country with often no viable alternatives I can certainly make a case for vehicles and speed limits well in excess of 100 mph. What I find harder to make a case for is vehicles which can accelerate to high speeds in mere seconds. If you look at the root causes of collisions, it’s usually aggressive driving of some sort which is fostered by vehicles capable of accelerating into any gap in traffic. Make super aerodynamic vehicles which might eventually reach very high speeds, but which lack the acceleration for aggressive driving. That solves 99% of the problem. Speed itself doesn’t kill. Excessive speed for the conditions does. Rapid accelerating vehicles makes it all too easy to reach speeds which may be inappropriate for the conditions. 100+ mph highway travel is fine, but to reach those speeds should take a conscious effort by the driver where you have to hold the pedal down for a few minutes, sort of like a train gathering speed. That would mean no more super fast speeds on two-lane highways, city streets, or other places where they’re entirely inappropriate.

  • fpfrainaguirre

    I have no problem with developing cars of a more aerodynamic structure. My problem is why we all need to have our own individual cars! One reason is that we then support oil and gas companies who from the beginning only wanted to make more money. They, for the most part, have no desire to care for our environment–our mother earth or the health of those who are here to care of it. We need better mass transit which was also destroyed by the oil and gas industry when we were brainwashed into having a car for every person! This is not sustainable! But, then, that’s okay (sarcastically) because you and I will not be around to see the health devastation caused by this debacle. Although, as I write this, I recall that there was very little cancer in my parents’ time compared to today.

  • Joe R.

    I really have no argument with anything you said. I totally agree that we should stop structuring our environment around individual cars. It’s hedonistically wasteful. Walking, cycling, and mass transit are the ways forward. I particularly like what happens when we apply radical aerodynamics to human-powered vehicles. We can get very high speeds but with none of the drawbacks associated with individual automobiles.

    Although, as I write this, I recall that there was very little cancer in my parents’ time compared to today.

    My understanding was cancer as we know it literally didn’t exist prior to when we starting poisoning the planet. Of course this way of life isn’t sustainable. I just wish I could be around for when something much better replaces it.

  • fpfrainaguirre

    So Mr. Joe, how do WE do this short of wishing? We have serious systemic problems in our country and throughout the world. Those of us who care about our planet, need to begin to unite and develop ways to care for it. How are you doing with installing solar on your home? How about wind and geothermal power? How about developing better batteries to store electrical energy? How do we give ownership of companies to the employees so stock holders lose their power to insist on bigger profits without doing any of the work? Read Gar Alperovitz’ book entitled: What Then Must We Do? Have a good day!

  • Neel B4 Zod

    100mph is necessary because “it’s a huge country.” So, because it’s huge, we have to go fast. And because we CHOOSE to put no viable alternatives there, we HAVE TO have cars that can go “well in excess of 100mph?” Also, it’s illegal to go 100mph.

    Explain. I’m not getting it.

    Ask any insurance actuarial the #1 aggravating cause of deadly and injurious or even merely expensive accidents and they’ll tell you it’s speed. It’s always been speed, it always will be speed.

    Is the exchange of having the option of going well over any legal limit we have to accept higher death, injury, and damage rates. It just will happen. When crashes happen – and they WILL happen – they will be deadlier, more injurious, and more expensive.

    That’s a good trade?

  • Joe R.

    I’ve love to viable alternatives to fast highways. Unfortunately, mention “trains” in most parts of the country and you’ll be branded a card-carrying commie. We’re stuck with motor vehicles, at least until a more sensible generation gets in power. Even then, we’ll have to slowly abandon and dismantle infrastructure designed with private cars in mind.

    Second, no argument that excessive speed kills but by definition “excessive” isn’t some arbitrary number like 90 mph or 125 mph. That’s why I hate these focuses on absolutes. Humans can design a road which is very safe at even 200 mph if there was a need for it. Point of fact, if we really want to reduce road carnage in this country focusing on limited access highway speeds is about the dumbest place to start. Compared to other types of roads, these roads are safer in terms of fatalities per hour or per mile. Two-lane country highways are the least safe roads. Here, often 50 mph is far more dangerous than 125 mph is on a well-designed limited access highway. And urban streets also have quite a bit of carnage. If we want to increase safety, these are the places we need to focus on with both road design and sometimes speed reductions. For example, over 6,000 pedestrians died last year. I can assure you any campaign to reduce speeds on limited access highways will reduce that by close to nothing.

    As for limited access highways, the primary problem here isn’t speed, so long as you’re not exceeding the road’s design speed. Many interstates were actually designed for speeds as high as 125 mph. Almost all of them are designed for at least 70 mph. The major cause of deaths on these roads are heavy trucks. We can and should be shipping more freight via rail. It’s not only good for national energy policy, but it would reduce the (already low) death toll on limited access highways by a huge margin.

    Do all these things and you’ll make road travel as safe as it can be made. That’s not to imply that the resulting death rate will be acceptable, but we already made the Faustian bargain to use cars to get around. I don’t like it much more than you, but I’m cognizant of the reality that we need some form of high-speed ground transport in a huge country like this. That being the case, sure, let’s focus on speed reductions where we’ll really get a good bang for the buck in terms of safety. That’s mostly on two-lane highways and urban streets. Many of those roads date to the horse-and buggy era. They weren’t designed for the speeds of modern cars, nor are they safe at those speeds.

  • Neel B4 Zod

    I’ve spent my entire adult life waiting around because the previous generation is unimaginative, obsolete, and clinging to power. If we’re going to lead people out of the 1950s, we’re going to have to lead and make real, hard decisions, as well as hold the car-centric people to account for the real costs of decades of their approach (decades of pollution and growing failure).

    So, we can’t build alternative infrastructure, but we should build massively enhanced road infrastructure that is just as expensive for a transportation solution you know to be mostly out-moded and obsolete for the vast majority of Americans? There is no logic there.

    We’re not stuck with motor vehicles. We CHOOSE THEM OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN, and blithely ignore all the bad stuff that comes with them. We plug our ears even more firmly, scream over the din of obvious counter-proposals that are long overdue, and build, for instance, the failed Katy Freeway in Houston, which filled right back up with traffic <5 years after it was complete, and decades before it will be paid off. The only reason that trend will probably reverse soon is that Houston's population is about to shrink significantly for all the wrong reasons.

  • Neel B4 Zod

    It’s not a loaded question. It’s an honest question. Your emotional response to it is what’s loaded. There is zero logical argument for cars that go over 100mph. It’s illegal everywhere in the country, speed is the #1 aggravating factor in accidents, and it’s blindly wasteful.

  • Joe R.

    Just for the record, I never said a thing about building massive, new infrastructure. I think we should squeeze out every bit of performance we can from the existing highway system but I certainly don’t support massive new investments in auto-based infrastructure.

    The idea here is focus on making urban and country highways safer, max out speeds on highways, AND start building some viable long term replacements for our auto-based system. We’ll get the most impact by focusing on replacements for short and medium distance travel first as those constitute the bulk of trips. I’m thinking a lot more bike infrastructure, more public transit, encouraging settlement patterns which are more conducive to both those things. As the local systems are in place, then we start building national high-speed railways. As it connects city pairs, we stop putting money into repairing parallel highways. Eventually nature will reclaim those highways. Perhaps we can maintain a 10 or 15 foot width for bike travel.

    Realistically, we could do a lot of this within one generation, most of it within two. I’d like to see the idea that everyone needs a car relegated to the dustbin of history before 2030, or 2040 at the latest.

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