Some provinces raising highway limits, but traffic, health experts divided on safest approach
Some traffic experts say that governments should change speed limits to match the speed that many are already driving.
It’s an idea that has gained favour in other countries around the world as a way to lessen the variability of speed on highways, create better traffic flow and prevent collisions.
CBC’s Marketplace investigated speed patterns on North America’s busiest highway to see how effective current speed limits are in influencing driver behaviour.
‘Our roads are safer today’
In July 2014, British Columbia increased speed limits on 1,300 kilometres of highway to as high as 120 km/h, making speed limits in B.C. the fastest in Canada.
“We think that our roads are safer today and will continue to be safer in the future with the adjustments that we’ve made,” B.C. Minister of Transportation Todd Stone told Marketplace‘s Asha Tomlinson.
B.C. may be the speed leader in Canada, but the province is following a global trend. In the United States, maximum highway speed limits range from 60 to 85 mph (97 to 137 km/h). In Europe, highway speed limits of 130 km/h are common.
Over the past 25 years, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have all modestly increased speed limits to as high as 110 km/h.
But for most of the rest of Canada, speed limits are capped at 100 km/h. Prince Edward Island is the slowest province, with a maximum speed limit of 90 km/h.
Majority of drivers speed
To find out how effective current speed limits are, Marketplace tracked drivers on North America’s busiest highway, the Macdonald–Cartier Freeway, better known as the 401. Speed data was collected near Oshawa and Bowmanville, just east of Toronto, over a three-day period.
The test was modeled on Ontario Ministry of Transportation methods and analyzed by a highway traffic engineer.
The test revealed that, under normal conditions, more than 75 per cent of drivers travel above the 100 km/hr limit, with many drivers going 120 km/h.
Marketplace also analyzed the traffic data for the 85 percentile, a measure used by engineers and provincial authorities to assess speed patterns, and one of the tools used to establish safe speed limits.
The number represents the speed that 85 per cent of drivers travel at or below.
Stone says if most drivers are speeding, then the speed limit is not effective and should change.
“There’s no point in having a sign on the side of the road with a posted speed that drivers are not actually obeying,” says Stone from the B.C. transportation ministry. “You want to make sure that your speed limits are in alignment with what 85 per cent of the traffic is doing.”
According to the Marketplace test, the 85 percentile on the 401 was between 113 and 126 km/h under normal driving conditions, which means that 85 per cent of drivers were travelling at that speed or below.
Chris Klimek, founder of Stop 100, an organization that advocates for higher speed limits in Ontario, wants the province to recognize the speed at which people are actually driving, and raise the speed limit on major highways to between 120 km/h and 130 km/h.
“We don’t want to be increasing people’s speeds. We simply want to legalize current speeds and current driving practices,” says Klimek.
“We have one of the best highway systems,” Klimek says. “It’s a shame that we are posting such a low speed limit and criminalize safe driving.”
‘More injuries, more fatalities’
According to the B.C. provincial government, a year after the province implemented higher speed limits, most people aren’t driving faster. The 85 percentile remained unchanged on roads affected by the new speeds.
B.C.’s move has been controversial in some circles, in part because Stone himself once had his license revoked for speeding. Not everyone agrees that faster speed limits mean safer roads.
“I think it comes down to basic physics, really,” says Dr. Jeff Brubacher, an emergency room physician and road safety researcher in Vancouver. “If you’re going faster, and you have a crash, you’re going to have more injuries. And that’s just basic kinetic energy.”
Brubacher says that from a safety point of view, increasing speed limits in B.C. was the wrong decision.
“There have been dozens of studies from around the world, really, looking at what happens in terms of injury crashes, fatality crashes, when the speed limits go up. And the overwhelming evidence is that when the speed limits go up, things get worse. More injuries, more fatalities.”
Brubacher points to a 2009 analysis by the Norwegian Centre for Transportation Research that reviewed research from around the world. That research found that when jurisdictions raised speed limits and mean traffic speed also rose, an increase in speed of one per cent meant fatalities increased by four per cent.
Stone, however, says that other research proves the opposite. Data from the State of Utah, for example, found that after speed limits were increased, speed-related collisions decreased by between 11 and 20 per cent.
Part of the reason the debate is ongoing is that it’s difficult to determine the degree to which speed limits, road design, increased volume of traffic or other variables contribute to accident statistics.
B.C. is monitoring collision statistics where speed limits have increased, but that analysis is not yet complete, and the province has not indicated when that data will be made public.
Are variable speed limits the answer?
Some Canadian provinces are looking to variable speed limits to make highways safer. Variable speed limits use signs equipped with sensors that measure weather, pavement condition, and traffic flow and then adjust speed limits according to exactly what’s happening on the road.
Quebec implemented a variable speed limit pilot project in the fall of 2014 and B.C. is adding variable speed signs to three sections of highway this winter.
Variable speed limits systems are already in use in some U.S. states and several European countries. In Germany and Finland, locations with these systems were found to have fewer accidents.