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Opinion: Higher highway speeds would be a step in the wrong direction

Posted: May 2, 2019 by John G. Smith

There was something oddly familiar about Ontario Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek’s case for reviewing the speed limits on 400-Series highways. The routes are designed for 120 km/h, he told media during a recent presentation at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, adding that the general public would be consulted on the issue.

I soon realized that his comments sounded familiar because I once heard similar observations by Al Palladini, the man who held Yurek’s cabinet post in the mid-1990s.

But the idea of posting higher speed limits was a bad idea then, and it’s a bad idea now.

I’m not naïve enough to suggest that everyone is merrily cruising along exactly at the posted limit of 100 km/h. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve earned speeding tickets in the past, even if the points have long faded from the record books. I, too, tend to drive with the flow of traffic. Is that always 100 km/h on a 400-Series highway? I’d be lying if I said it was.

No matter what a speed limit might be, it always seems to be treated as a baseline. Today we see 100 km/h speed limits stretch to 120 km/h. I’m convinced that a posted limit of 120 would stretch further still, no matter what enforcement resources are available. As those top speeds creep higher, any speed differentials between slow- and fast-moving vehicles will also grow wider. And in a province where truck speed limiters are the law, who knows how fast commercial vehicles will be allowed to travel.

It’s a worry because there’s no escaping the laws of physics. Higher speeds lead to longer stopping distances and leave less time to react when something goes wrong. The only thing that seems to increase is the threat of a collision and the amount of mangled metal that ensues.

British Columbia learned this the hard way. It recently dialed back the maximum speeds on several highways after boosting the limits to the magic number of 120 km/h in July 2014. The decision to reduce many of the posted speeds was made after researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) found that fatal crashes doubled on some of the routes with higher limits.

It is hardly the only research to conclude that speed kills. Only days before Yurek made his comments, the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) cited plenty of data when announcing that driver behaviors like speeding would be a special focus during this year’s Operation Safe Driver Week.

The umbrella group for highway enforcement teams pointed to U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data that identified speeding as a contributing factor in 26% of traffic fatalities recorded in 2017. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Highway Loss Data Institute found that speeding was a factor in more than ¼ of crash-related deaths since 2008. And the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s 2016 Large Truck and Bus Facts identified speeding as the most frequent driver-related crash factor for commercial drivers and commuters alike.

In trying to justify higher speeds, Yurek also noted that today’s speed limits were established during the energy crisis of the 1970s in a bid to conserve fuel.

He may be missing the point that conserving fuel remains a good idea today. Just like highway safety.

 

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