They Died at an Absurd Speed at Niagara Falls. Why Did Their Vehicle Let Them?

Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that the car that exploded near the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls, New York—killing both occupants of the car, injuring a border control officer, and snarling traffic at the international crossing on one of the busiest travel days of the year—was an ultra-high-end Bentley with a 542-horsepower engine that could go from 0 to 60 in 3.9 seconds. Indeed, when you watch the video released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection of the car hitting a median as nearby vehicles crawl into tollbooths, you can’t help but admire how fast the Bentley Flying Spur is going when it launches upward as if shot from a cannon.

It does make you wonder, though: Why on earth would someone want to own a car—one meant to be driven on regular old roads in, for example, upstate New York, where its driver operated a small local chain of hardware stores—that can go a reported 175 miles per hour? That’s 110 miles per hour faster than the highest posted speed limit in the state of New York. It’s about 107 miles per hour faster than the highest posted speed limit in Ontario, where the driver hoped to attend a KISS concert. Heck, that’s 90 miles per hour faster than the highest posted speed limit in all of America (on state Highway 130 outside Austin, Texas). Unfortunately, we can’t ask Kurt P. Villani, 53, of Grand Island, New York, or his wife, Monica Villani, also 53, why they bought a car that can go that fast, because they both died horribly when the car exploded.

Why would an automaker manufacture a car with so much engine power that it requires an eight-speed transmission? The obvious answer is: because people pay a lot of money for it. A 2022 Bentley Flying Spur like the Villanis’ sells for upward of $200,000, according to Car and Driver, and that’s the price for a used model. Car and Driver does not reveal the MSRP for a new Bentley but describes it as both “eye-watering” and “eye-popping.” (Once you dry out your eyeballs and stick them back in your head, you’ll see that Car and Driver does recommend you buy the thing, giving the Flying Spur a rating of 10 out of 10.)

Just a few days before the crash at Niagara Falls, I watched Michael Mann’s new film, Ferrari, starring Adam Driver as the Italian car designer Enzo Ferrari. The film fetishizes speed; for long stretches, we thrill along with Enzo to the throaty roar of his top-of-the-line engines as a parade of handsome drivers puts the cars through their paces on race tracks, city streets, and the 1957 Mille Miglia, a thousand-mile race around the roads of Italy. The film portrays Enzo as more or less indifferent to the company’s task of selling sports cars to civilians. When his money man tells him Ferrari needs to sell way more cars to stay afloat, Enzo scoffs at all the other car companies who race in order to sell more cars; he sells cars, he says, only in order to keep on racing. Yet those midcentury years, as Ferrari and Maserati battled other brands for dominance on the track and then pushed ever-faster consumer models into the marketplace, established an expectation on the part of high-end customers: One reason an expensive car costs so much is that it could perform on the race track, given the chance.

But of course that is stupid. American roads are not race tracks, and American drivers are not professional athletes with years of experience driving at dangerous speeds. The faster drivers go on the road, the more likely they are to suffer a crash and for that crash to be fatal—a point that is both bluntly, stupidly obvious and more or less ignored by plenty of drivers, automobile marketers, and road designers. Drivers love to open up a car and see how fast it can go, contributing to an increase in reckless driving year over year. Marketers love to shoot commercials featuring cars tearing down open highways, cruising across sunset-lit beaches, and otherwise showing off their impressive horsepower. That 85-mph highway in Texas? A local television station discovered that the state could have opened the toll road at a lower speed limit, but the Texas Department of Transportation “took advantage of a $100 million payment the private toll road company promised in exchange for an 85 mph speed limit.” Why? Because a higher speed limit, it hoped, would encourage greater use, and thus more toll revenue. Needless to say, on state Highway 130, plenty of people crash their cars and die.

There’s another solution: speed governors, devices that prevent cars from traveling at wildly unsafe speeds. As Slate contributor David Zipper has written, American cars already feature such devices, but most are set comically high—often 155 mph. (Volvo recently made headlines for limiting its cars to a mere 112 mph.) As of 2024, all new cars in Europe must include “intelligent speed assist” technology that sounds alarms and forces a driver to slow down if a car exceeds the speed limit for too long. (It’s not foolproof, and a driver willing to navigate through a lot of menus can turn the feature off.) In the U.S., such regulation has never gotten much traction, thanks to driver resistance and industry indifference. But as Zipper reports, the Department of Transportation recently recommended all automakers install ISA in new cars—and called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to mandate it. U.S. traffic deaths are skyrocketing because the cars that are going faster and faster on our roads are also bigger and heavier than ever before, so such a move would obviously be a good idea. We’ll see if American stupidity and stubbornness allow it to happen.

For Americans simply love to speed. Even if they don’t actually speed, they love the idea that they could: An executive at a company that makes speedometers told the Associated Press, “People really want to see higher numbers” on their dashboards—one reason that your minivan’s speedometer may go up to 140 even if your car is unlikely to approach that kind of number. If you are really wealthy, however, you can buy a car that can easily hit—indeed, exceed—that number. And then you might end up driving that fast, maybe on purpose, maybe due to some kind of mechanical flaw. (A spokeswoman for Bentley assured the New York Times that the Niagara Falls crash “was not tied to a recall in 2021 of some models over a risk that their accelerator pedals could become stuck.” If I wrote for Car and Driver, I might call that quote “eyebrow-raising.”) What happens to you, and to the other drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists around you, when something goes just a little bit wrong?

Michael Mann’s Ferrari may glamorize speed, but Mann isn’t shy about showing its consequences. Early in the film, one of Ferrari’s drivers dies on the test track; Enzo immediately turns to another driver and offers him the job. The film climaxes with a horrific crash in the Mille Miglia, caused when a driver, pushing his car to the limit, runs over a small piece of metal in the road. As the Ferrari’s tire blows, Mann shows us the fast car flying away, soaring into the air, beautiful and terrible. Its arc looks spookily like that of the 2022 Bentley Flying Spur, achieving liftoff by the Rainbow Bridge, its driver helplessly slamming on the brakes. The Flying Spur does not offer intelligent speed assist; according to Car and Driver, one of its few driver-assistance features is a forward-collision warning, which comes standard in the car, and which surely must have been blaring as the car plummeted down toward the ground.

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