A dangerous need for speed during the pandemic: Why some drivers feel it's OK if they floor it

Illinois State Police handed out 78,255 speeding citations to drivers in 2021. And those who got only tickets were the lucky ones.

The Illinois Department of Transportation's most recent data shows 104,382 vehicle crashes in 2019 related to speeding, 368 of them fatal.

Caught up in those traumatic encounters were 264,561 people — passengers, pedestrians and drivers, according to IDOT.

If those numbers weren't troubling enough, experts are tracking a speeding spike linked to COVID-19.

Crash reports indicate an estimated 11% increase in speeding-related fatalities in 2020 after the onset of the pandemic, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported in October 2021.

So who are these lead-footed drivers, and why do they feel the need for speed?

For starters, there are the copycats.

“Many drivers take their cue from the speeds of other cars,” DePaul University transportation Professor Joseph Schwieterman said. “If cars whiz past them, they perceive it as a signal they are being a slowpoke — even when they may be at optimal speed.”

Some are seeking four-wheeled therapy.

“Driving at high speed for some can be exhilarating and a form of stress relief — with deadly consequences,” Schwieterman noted.

And there are the Mario Andretti wannabes.

University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute expert Colleen Peterson studies driver behavior. She's found that rather than being ignorant of limits, some U.S. drivers deliberately choose to speed.

After surveying drivers, “the big thing I saw was this perceived mastery idea — they feel like they can do it safely, that they have the skills to drive at a particularly fast speed and do it safely,” said Peterson, an assistant research scientist at the institute who grew up in Bartlett.

Her August 2021 article “To Speed or Not To Speed” in the Journal of Safety Research quotes one person saying, “Now that I know the roads and now I'm able to predict what other drivers are about to do, I can drive safer with speeding or not speeding.”

Here's a sampling from other drivers cited in the article.

• “I can also drive very safely at high speeds, which makes speed limits frustrating.”

• “When I was 16, I was more concerned with following the law. Now I'm 24 and I care more about blending in with traffic. I'm more likely to speed now because I feel safer driving at the same speed as everyone else. The typical speed around here is 5 to 10 mph over the speed limit.”

• “When I got older I felt that it was better to drive aggressive in some situations rather than deal with the slow dangerous drivers who are overly cautious to a fault.”

Before you get too paranoid about your fellow motorists, one survey participant said, “I have also realized that there is no great time savings in driving everywhere fast, and there are a lot of downsides.”

That point hits home for many ad hoc speeders who break the law if they're late for a day care pickup or work.

“Many motorists suffer from a cognitive bias, thinking they save more time speeding then they actually do,” Schwieterman said. “Some take risks when the time saving is trivial, like a minute or two.”

Many Americans take speeding as a given, Peterson explained. “Police don't tend to pull people over until they're 10 miles over the limit,” she said, and that contributes to normalizing higher speeds.

Illinois State Police Sgt. Christopher Watson has responded to multiple crashes. His take-away? “More than 90% are entirely avoidable and the result of a bad decision.”

Thoughts on speeding? Drop an email to

You should know

Nationwide, speeding killed 9,478 people in 2019, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports. Speed was a contributing factor in more than 26% of all traffic deaths.

So how can you keep safe with aggressive speeders? The agency advises putting lots of space between yourself and a speeding driver. And if you're in the left lane and a driver wants to pass, don't be territorial; get into the right lane and let it go.

Gridlock alert

Drivers on I-290 should expect delays in February with utility and ramp work scheduled at interchanges with the Tri-State (I-294) and Reagan Memorial (I-88) tollways. Overnight lane closures and ramp detours will occur near Berkley that include I-290 between St. Charles and Butterfield roads, and ramps linking northbound I-294 and eastbound I-88 with westbound I-290. Detours will be posted.

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