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The case for higher speed limits

Published November 7, 2012
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Recently, I was contacted by Chris Klimek of the organization “Stop 100”. Their mandate is to push the MTO for an increase in speed limits on our 400 series highways from the current 100 km/h to a more acceptable 120 km/h.

They have asked for my support to pressure the Ontario Minister of Transportation, the Hon. Bob Chiarelli to look into and amend the speed limit.

When I interviewed the Minister back in May he was quite adamant that “speed kills” and Ontario roads are the safest in North America because our speed limits are set at 100 km/h.

Stop 100 would also like help debunking the “speed kills” propaganda as they state in their press release.

More: The biggest danger on North America’s fastest highway? It’s not speed

More: Is Toronto ready for no speed limits?

This speed limit debate will rage on for many years to come or until we remove drivers from the transportation equation altogether – when we are bound by computer-driven vehicles only.

Let’s examine some facts and fallacies about these hot topics.

Does speed kill?

Definitely not.

If travelling at high speed alone caused death, then every pilot, astronaut or airline passenger should be dead. They travel at high speed daily. Each time there is an airline disaster they don’t blame the crash on the fact the jet was going over 800 km/h before it slammed into a massive object like the Earth. It is usually a mechanical or weather issue or pilot error that caused the crash.

Driving at high speed has never caused a crash or a death on any road, although driving in a stupid manner has.

What I mean by that controversial sentence is driving at high speeds is not deadly. However, driving at high speeds at the wrong time and place is very dangerous and has caused many deaths.

I could drive from Toronto to Montreal on the 401 at 250 km/h with little danger to me or others if and only if: 1. I was the only vehicle on the road, 2. I was driving a well-engineered and maintained high performance car and 3. If I had high performance driving skills (which I do).

On the other hand, I could drive from Toronto to Montreal on the 401 at only 100 km/h and be a complete and utter deadly threat to myself and others if I attempted that drive on an icy, busy wintery road.

It’s not the speed that kills. It’s the lack of intelligence and skill that kills. My favourite saying is, “Anyone can drive fast, smart drivers know when not to”.

Going too fast in traffic or in poor road conditions or into a curve has caused many traffic deaths. In these fatalities, the cause was not speed. The cause of these deaths was driving stupid.

Therefore, speed does not kill. It’s the impact that kills. However, speed affects the impact.

Having said that, let’s look at the Laws of Physics and how speed greatly influences the results of a crash. The energy of a moving body is directly related to its mass and the velocity. In other words, the more a vehicle weighs and the faster it travels, the greater the impact. However, what makes this more of a speed issue is the force of the crash increases as a square of the vehicle’s speed. In other words if you travel two times faster the force of the impact will be quadrupled. This is where people misunderstand the “speed kills” misnomer.
What speed does affect is the impact results. The greater the velocity, the worse the damage to the occupants and vehicles.

Since the mass of the object is part of the equation, maybe we should be ranting that “size kills”. Should we all drive small vehicles at very low rates of speed? Sounds like we should all be on bicycles!

Speed also plays a big role in stopping distances. The distance required to stop a vehicle increases with the square of the speed. Double your speed and the stopping distance will quadruple.

Crashing a vehicle at 100 km/h can be just as deadly as crashing the same vehicle at 120 km/h.

Now that we have looked at the misconception that speed kills, should we increase the speed limits on our 400 series highways to 120 km/h or 130 km/h?

Firstly, in the GTA during the rush hours, the speed limit is irrelevant since no one can get close to the posted speed anyway.

Outside of these “rush hours”, traffic studies show that 85 per cent of traffic on these roads already travels at or around 120 km/h. Since the OPP, who patrol these highways, usually allow this to occur as long as the majority of traffic follows at this pace, then we would have to say the “unofficial” speed limit is already 120 km/h. The design criteria for our highways are for a travelled speed of 80 mph (130 km/h). These 400 series roads are safe at speeds of up to 130 km/h.

In a way, it appears motorists have voted with their right feet to have a higher speed limit.

Many people have a fear that if the limits are raised to 120 or 130 km/h then most traffic will then drive at 140 or 150 km/h. This turns out to be not the case as seen in many U.S. states where the limits are 70 or 75 mph (or 113 or 120 km/h). Most American motorists are not buzzing these highways at speeds of 140 or 150 km/h.

The reasons for this are numerous. One, when motorists experience speeds at 140 -150 km/h, they become uncomfortable at that velocity and they soon realize that fuel economy suffers greatly at those speeds.

Some people worry that with the higher limit we’ll have more crazed speeders. There will always be a few of those dangerous drivers who will travel at ridiculous speeds above 130 km/h whether the limit is 100 km/h or 120 km/h.

The fact that vehicles are much safer than they have ever been and road design and tire technology are much improved, having a speed limit of 120 km/h in my opinion would not make our roads more dangerous.

So why do we have the existing artificially low speed limit of 100 km/h?

It was initially enacted back in the early ’70s to help reduce fuel consumption. In those days we were going through an oil shortage. Driving at 100 km/h instead of 120 will yield much better mileage. On top of that, it also makes for higher fines when a motorist is stopped for speeding at 130 km/h in a 100 zone instead of 130 in a 120 zone! A fine for 30 km/h over the limit will produce more revenue than a fine for 10 km/h over.

What makes our roads dangerous are the vast multitude of poorly trained and distracted drivers who are fighting for every square metre of asphalt they can claim. It’s not high speeds that are to blame.

Maybe we should be looking at posting a minimum speed limit and doing a better job of training drivers? It works well in Germany.

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