Cognitive Factors May Predict the Need for Speed

PAFF_0729_SpeedingBehavior_newsfeatureDriving over the speed limit is the most common violation drivers make and one of the biggest contributors to traffic crashes. Speeding is estimated to have contributed to 30% of all fatal automobile crashes in the US, resulting in 10,219 deaths in 2012 alone.

Considering the very real dangers of speeding, why do some of us do it so often?

Psychological scientists Mark A. Elliott and James A. Thomson of the University of Strathclyde used a cognitive framework called the Theory of Planned Behavior to examine the various cognitive factors, beliefs, and social pressures that might explain why people regularly speed, despite the dangers of getting a ticket or even causing a fatal accident, and predict future speeding behavior.

Elliott and Thomson mailed a questionnaire to drivers from across England who had received a speeding ticket in the past four months. A second questionnaire on speeding behavior was sent out for comparison six months later.

Of all the cognitive factors the researchers looked at, the single strongest factor associated with the intention to speed was past speeding behavior. That is, regularly driving above the speed limit was the best predictor that speeding behavior would continue in the future.

Additional cognitive factors that strongly predicted whether participants would speed included whether they thought someone important to them would ever speed, and anticipated regret over speeding.

The study found that a particularly high-risk group of drivers were those who saw speeding as an important part of their self-concept, or roles they identify with within society. They expressed the strongest intention to speed, and also reported frequently exceeding speed limits.

Drivers who perceived speeding to be less morally acceptable, and who anticipated feeling regret over speeding, reported fewer instances of speeding in the six month follow-up questionnaire.

Overall, study participants had negative attitudes about speeding and felt that it was morally wrong, not generally socially acceptable, and something they regretted. Participants also felt that the decision to speed was an avoidable behavior within their control.

The results, published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, could be useful for safety interventions aimed at reducing the number of speed limit offenders. The researchers identified several cognitive factors – such as attitude about perceived risk, potential regret, and the social acceptability of speeding – as good targets for speeding intervention programs.


Elliott, M. A., Thomson, J. A. (2010). The social cognitive determinants of offending drivers’ speeding behaviour. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 42(7), 1595-1605. DOI: 10.1016/j.aap.2010.03.018


Whatever state of mind or reasoning a speed limiter solves the problem. Top speed limiters have been compulsory on trucks and buses in UK for around 40 years. Linked to GPS or similar they could work to local limits.
Machines may be easier to change than minds? Tech problem, tech solution?

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