May 29, 2014 at 1:00 am

Speeding a habit we've yet to shake

Reports last week suggested that one downside of the growing “driverless car” phenomenon would be a reduction in revenue states, municipalities and police departments reap from motorists caught breaking traffic rules.

Perhaps it’s a possibility that forward-thinking managers should factor into public budgets, but as long as humans are in control of their throttles, it doesn’t appear that community coffers are in danger of going broke. Nor will the other industries that depend on traffic citations for income, from operators of driver-improvement courses to specialty lawyers to insurance companies that boost rates based on driving records.

Americans fork over about $6.3 billion a year in penance for their behavior behind the wheel, based on most recent figures from the U.S. Highway Patrol. According to the online site Statistics Brain, about 41 million tickets are issued in a given year, and about one in five drivers will be on the receiving end of a citation.

The average cost of a ticket is $152, and the average annual speeding ticket revenue per U.S. police officer is a whopping $300,000.

You’d think we’d all slow down. But according to some psychologists, speeding is like an addiction; various pundits even have likened speeders’ traits to the selfish, grandiose and tension-relieving habits of alcoholics.

And a surprising number of online message boards for car enthusiasts feature plaintive topics like “Addicted to speed; want to stop!” and “How can I wean myself off speeding?” Helpful responses range from using meditation, music or car-spotting as a distraction, to letting off steam at a racing school. Focusing on the cost of the gas those pumping pistons are burning at high RPM appears to be another technique used by velocity mavens.

When polled, however, Americans seem a lot prissier on paper than those 41 million traffic tickets a year would indicate; a study released in December by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “2011 National Survey of Speeding Attitudes and Behaviors” turned up some interesting and amusing results.

For example, 91 percent of drivers agree with the statement that “everyone should obey the speed limits because it’s the law.” But only 48 percent thought “something should be done” to reduce speeding on highways. And only 41 percent espoused higher fines for speeders.

What struck me the most in the study was the high odds of getting a ticket if stopped; of those who reported being pulled over for speeding in the previous year, 68 percent received a ticket! Only 28 percent got off with a warning, and a mere 5 percent were let go with neither ticket nor warning. (One wonders what exactly the conversation was, in those few cases.)

Those are worse odds than I’d thought. So if you’re a habitual speeder, what can you do to minimize the cost?

Radar detectors, one of the hot automotive fads of the ’80s, still are being used by devotees. And in a more 21st century vein, websites like Trapster.com and Speedtrap.org allow motorists to advise one another of locations known to be law-enforcement stakeouts. But maybe prevention is better than cure, at least from a pocketbook standpoint.

I do admit to putting my sporty little hatchback through its paces on an open stretch of highway or a charming country lane, the satellite radio tuned to stations like “Octane” or “Liquid Metal.” That rush generated by commanding a fast and nimble vehicle just seems to be in our blood, and celebrated throughout the ages by the chariot racers of ancient Greece, the 19th century ocean-going captains as their clipper sails filled with wind and the fleet stagecoach drivers of the Old West all the way up to today’s 230-mph Indy cars and “Top Gun” fighter pilots.

But after one or two sojourns of shame on the side of Midwestern roadways, wearing that universal chagrined expression of pulled-over drivers everywhere — and thankfully wheeling away ticket-free and contrite — a little voice says I’ve pressed my luck as far as it will go.

Now, where’s my audio book and that “on” button for the cruise control?

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via mpreddy@aol.com.