National Consumers League

Technology can limit speeds on cars; EU set to require it

According to reports, the European Union (EU) is set to require a sophisticated set of technologies on all vehicles to limit driver speeds, described as satellite location cameras, intelligent speed assistance, video cameras, data recorder, and emergency braking starting in 2022. They say it will increase safety--but at what cost?

These measures will purportedly reduce fatalities by 20 percent and prevent 25,000 deaths over a 15-year period. Consumer advocates care deeply about auto safety, but how it’s done, what measures are used, and who pays for it is also important. There’s anger and skepticism in Europe about these kinds of measures. I must say, I share some of that concern.

Here in Washington DC, the Mayor and City Council put hundreds of speed and red light cameras all over the city and imposed large fines—$150 in some places for a first offense—for violations. DC has a lot of low- and middle-income residents; NCL looked at the placement of the cameras and found the biggest revenues were generated in heavily African American neighborhoods. And though the rationale for the cameras is pedestrian safety, after these cameras have been in place for several years, pedestrian injuries and fatalities are once again on the rise. The fines have become a cash cow for the city, generating well over a half billion dollars. Apparently, they haven’t done much to actually improve pedestrian safety. And I’ve talked to many people who drive for a living—they’ve all received the pricey $150 tickets for going 36 mph—while otherwise driving safely, some on roads that have virtually no foot traffic.

There’s more to learn about the new EU rules. Germany has no set speed limit, but in France, backlash on its limits has resulted in half the network of speed cameras being destroyed. I’m more of a “build safer cars” advocate, not “impose draconian fines on drivers.” The former is more effective in preventing injury and death. Two EU rules that have reduced fatalities significantly: mandatory seat belt usage and performance standards for crashworthiness of vehicles make a lot of sense. So does emergency braking technology, because it’s automatic when conditions trigger it. But I fear that more video cameras, data recorders, tracking the location of vehicles—all of which raise privacy issues—may sound good but won’t bring safer roads and will just result more in fines generated for municipalities.

We will be watching with interest the EU rollout of required technologies on cars. We should overserve it closely because the United States will probably not be far behind.