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Opinion: Skepticism about Ontario’s 110 km/h pilot

Posted: September 26, 2019 by George Smagala

I read — with skepticism — the Ontario Ministry of Transportation announcement of a pilot project that will test 110 km/h speed limits along highways 402, 417, and a portion of the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW).

Commercial vehicles, however, are restricted to 105 km/h by law and must be equipped with electronic speed-limiting devices. No other vehicles are restricted in this manner. When the Ontario Liberals first introduced this legislation in 2008, it was strongly supported by the Ontario Trucking Association (OTA), which cited fuel savings and the public perception about speeding truckers. At the same time, OTA also stressed that commercial vehicles were involved in only 3% of all collisions, and that the truck driver was found to be not at fault in 80% of those collisions.

While fuel management and collision reduction are noble goals, speed itself does not cause crashes. Untrained and inattentive drivers cause crashes.

We’re told highways and vehicles are designed by highly educated engineers who account for limitations associated with human factors, vehicle dynamics, and the topographical terrain available for highway construction. Public roads — and particularly Ontario’s 400-series highways — are designed to move people and freight efficiently and safely.

They were also designed for higher speeds. The CBC reported this May that former Ontario Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek “acknowledged that the 400-series highways are designed to handle traffic at 120 km/h.”

Like other motorists, I would suggest that 120 km/h is also the de-facto speed on 400 Series highways.

Without effective training, most people are incapable of safely handling those speeds. Ineffective and/or non-existent training, sub-standard examination and licensing requirements, selective enforcement policies, and driver inattention all combine to produce gridlock, road rage, and collisions.

I would also suggest that humans have become so insulated and unaware of danger — and the perception of danger — that they have simply eliminated self-preservation techniques from their daily activities.

While various policing agencies have quietly (albeit negatively) reacted to the proposed pilot project, they must bear the burden of enforcing Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act as well as the Criminal Code. I would suspect their primary concern is that the de-facto speeds would eventually rise to unacceptable levels.

They have cause for concern.  A significant number of motorists already travel at approximately 120 km/h, believing enforcement teams have better things to do. Raising the posted limit to 110 km/h may accomplish very little in terms of improved safety and traffic flow, but it might escalate the de-facto speed to 130 km/h or more. In addition, enforcement has historically focused on one particular section of the Highway Traffic Act, while ignoring what is arguably other rarely enforced sections that cause driver distraction, road rage and crashes.

An informal survey, conducted by yours truly, revealed that 50 out of 50 enforcement officers were unfamiliar with HTA Sections 132/147. However, these same officers were able to recite Section 128 without hesitation.

Section 128, which annually accounts for more than a half-million convictions, deals with speed over the posted limit. Conversely, convictions related to HTA Section 132/147 — covering “unnecessary slow driving” and “slow vehicles to travel on right side” — are so low that the Ontario Ministry of Transportation doesn’t even publish the numbers.

There were 524,719 speed demons convicted and 378,490 drivers involved in 208,404 reportable collisions in 2016. Apparent driver action “speed too fast for conditions’ was cited in 13,857 collisions, and “speed too fast” was a factor in 1,677 collisions. “Following too closely” was a factor in 39,998 collisions and “fail to yield” was a factor in 27,120 collisions.

On the other hand, 188,434 drivers were “deemed to be driving properly” at the time of those collisions. Seriously.

Speed, as a component of driving, does not by itself cause collisions. Speed exacerbates the potential for injuries, property damage, and death after a collision has occurred. If we simply blame speed without examining the many other factors, then we lose sight of the true causes.

Poorly trained and inattentive drivers cause collisions at any speed. Combine those factors with lax licencing standards, misguided enforcement, entitled driver attitudes, and the increased speed differentials between commercial and private vehicles. I see uncertain and potentially dangerous results with this pilot program. At the very least, we’ll experience no change at all — not an acceptable destination considering the time and resources invested.

Let’s instead focus on effective training, intelligent licensing practices, and appropriate enforcement techniques.

— George Smagala draws on extensive experience as a safety professional, established during 45 years of of work on the road as a driver, and in classrooms as an instructor. The former OTA Road Knight and Driver of the Year has driven more than 5 million collision-free kilometers and is a registered professional trainer, a third-party program assessor, and recently retired transportation safety consultant who specialized in workplace safety.

 

 

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