Accidents waiting to happen

Published on August 9, 2014

An interesting report out of British Columbia last week garnered surprise in some quarters.

B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone is going to allow an increase in speed limits on some of that province’s highways. On at least three major roads the speed limit will rise to 120 kilometres an hour, while 30 others will see increases from 80 and 90 km/h to 100 and 110 km/h. By the time you read this, most of the changes will have been implemented.

Call me a skeptic, but don’t higher speeds lead to more accidents? The RCMP and the Association of Police Chiefs certainly think so and they opposed the move, but the government went ahead  anyway.

“Driver democracy” is the phrase coined to justify it. The thinking is this: most people drive at a speed they find comfortable and ignore posted speed limits deemed too low.

A spokesman with the National Motorists Association in the United States, John Bowman, puts it this way: “I think there is a realization that traffic tends to find its own flow, and if you are going below that, you might be the one causing the safety risk.”

Bowman and his supporters, including the B.C. government, seem to think slower drivers are the dangerous ones on the highways — not the speeders.

The idea of increasing speed limits is becoming a trendy debate and others in Canada are being urged to follow B.C.’s lead.

Ontario has a group, STOP 100, advocating for higher speed limits, founded by Chris Klimek.

“We keep preserving these political speed limits” Klimek says, “because politicians lack the political courage to admit their speed limits are wrong.”

STOP 100 would like to see speeds increase to 130 km/h on some stretches of Ontario highway.

So, where did the 100 km/h speed limit come from anyway? It  was imposed in the 1970s, not as a safety measure, but as a conservation tool.

Fuel shortages during that era led to a national speed limit designed to save gas. Proponents of new speed limits argue that the arbitrary number had nothing to do with road safety.

Supporters of higher speeds also point to road engineering studies which state that vehicle collisions are reduced on higher-speed highways. They also suggest we set speed limits based on the speeds drivers use — it’s called the 85 per cent principle.

“Facts are facts,” Todd Stone says. “When you have motorists all generally moving at the same rate of speed as opposed to people moving much faster or much slower than the natural flow of speed, you are going to have a safer corridor.”

If we took the Outer Ring Road as an example and applied the 85 per cent rule, the speed limit would be 125 km/h or more, and on the TCH it would be at least 120 km/h.

Forgive me, but I can’t see this producing a safer highway.

“Certainly, I understand the concerns relating to speed,” Stone said, “But I think what we are seeing around the world and North America, as well, is a growing recognition of the fact that it’s not so much speed in and of itself that causes collisions, but variations in speed.”

I accept the premise that drivers will travel at speeds they are comfortable with, usually ignoring  signs, especially in good conditions, but there are other things to consider. While speed itself may not kill, our reaction time is limited and our ability to react properly to danger on the highway has to be compromised by higher speed. Driver distraction alone kills thousands in this country every year, and that’s  at lower speeds.

Now we propose that the near-misses get recorded in the full-on accident and injury category?

There may be a growing consensus that faster is safer, but I find it counterintuitive.

One thing is certain though: the debate is coming our way.

Randy Simms is a political commentator and broadcaster. He can be reached at

rsimms@nf.sympatico.ca

Twitter: @RandyRsimms