In the context of driving, speed is not dangerous.
Think about it for a second. The act of going fast in a car, in and of itself, has never killed or injured anyone.
Now, stopping, though? That’s a whole different ball game. Stopping can cause all sorts of problems, especially if it involves any amount of abruptness and another car or a large object. That’s more commonly known as a crash, and that’s where you run into trouble.
That’s why, in my view, the hullabaloo over the Ontario government’s upcoming two-year pilot project to change the speed limit from 100 to 110 kilometres per hour on select stretches of 400-series highway is largely focused on the wrong issue.
Modern expressways, at least in North America, are designed to be safe for use by traffic that’s flowing at 120 to 130 kilometres per hour. From an engineering standpoint, they can easily handle what’s being proposed.
Our cars can handle it, too. That long list of safety and convenience features that today’s cars come with such as blind spot monitoring, active cruise control, lane keep assist, emergency braking, and even simpler things like airbags keep working to speeds well beyond anything being contemplated here.
The only element in this equation that potentially can’t handle an increase in highway speed limits is the seat-to-steering-wheel interface – in other words, us, the frail and flawed humans doing the driving.
We don’t have a speed problem in Ontario. We have a discipline problem.
Some follow the car in front of them too closely. Some let themselves get distracted by their smartphones, then look up to find they’re in a hot mess and need to slam on the brakes.
Some, like one fellow I encountered on a rural stretch of the 401 a couple of years ago, cruise along at night going well under the speed limit in a black car with no lights on. (Really.)
All of these situations are far less conducive to controlled traffic at speed than they are to sudden, unexpected stopping. And all of this potential for abrupt stopping where we shouldn’t need to, as we’ve discussed, is the part we need to focus our attention on to make our highways safer.
So, if we all want this pilot project to work – and I don’t know about you, but I’d certainly appreciate being able to legally get through that dry-as-toast drive from Toronto to Montreal a half an hour sooner – then we need to decide collectively that we’re going to shape up and eradicate as much poor driving behaviour in our province as we can.
Here are some of the things we can all work on to rein in our pesky unexpected stopping problem. Be sure to tell your family and friends. We’ll need everyone to get on board.
Leave lots of space around you
The faster you’re traveling, the more time you need to come to a stop. On dry pavement, the combination of reaction time and braking time means you need 98 metres to come to a stop from 100 km/h, according to data published by the Queensland Government in Australia. At 110 km/h, that distance goes up to 113 metres. Add a loss in traction due to wet pavement, for example, and those figures go much higher: you need 122 metres to stop at 100 km/h in that case, and 143 metres at 110 km/h.
This sounds scary, but again, speed is not the issue here, only whether you can safely bring yourself to a stop from the speed that you’re doing. That means that if we’re all going faster, then we all need to drive with a little more space around us. And if you can’t wheedle out a safe amount of space because the highway is too congested, then slowing down to match the space you do have is the better option.
Drive according to the conditions
The same principle applies to changes in the road surface. If there’s less traction available due to rain, snow, ice, a gravel surface, whatever – and especially if your tires aren’t well-suited to the change such as, for example, not using winter tires when it’s cold outside – then you either need to leave a lot more space or, more likely, slow down so that your speed is in line with the capabilities of you and your vehicle in the conditions.
Put your phone away!
It’s frustrating how often this needs to be said. Driving is a full-attention task. You will never stop in time to avoid hitting something you never saw in the first place. There is nothing happening in your social life or on the internet that’s more important than the life and well-being of yourself and those around you. Lock your phone up in the glove box if you have to. Just keep it out of your hand and out of temptation’s reach.
Practice better lane discipline
Here’s a key point that’s too often missed: if people are forced to pass you on your right side, then you’re in the wrong lane. Why is this important? Because traffic that’s flowing predictably is safer. As speed limits go up, we need to remember that they’re speed limits, not speed minimums, and there are likely to be people who continue to use highways who aren’t comfortable with going all the way to 110 km/h. Yes, these people can co-exist with the rest of us, so long as they stay all the way to the right so that other drivers can move around them in a consistent manner. It’s when cars start angrily passing a slower vehicle on both sides at varying speeds and traffic is merging in and out that there’s the greatest potential for car-to-car contact.
On top of that, people who camp in the left lane on an open highway are the absolute worst. The far-left lane is for passing. If you’re one of those people who spends a fair amount of time there because you’re passing people more often than not, I sympathize. But in that case, it’s not only your job to move over whenever there are gaps, but it’s also your job to monitor your mirrors and move to the right any time someone faster comes up behind you. If you can’t do that, you’re creating a hazard.
It would be great to see the Ontario Provincial Police being stricter with flagrant disregard of lane discipline in the pilot project zones. They’d be doing us all a service.
Maybe we need speed minimums
On the subject of people who drive below the speed limit – let’s harken back to the story about my night-owl friend in black here – maybe it’s time Ontario implemented a speed minimum, too. This is the motorsport enthusiast in me talking, but speed on its own isn’t nearly so horrifying and alarming as closing speed, which is the term for the relative difference in velocity between you and something you could potentially hit and how quickly that difference causes you to approach that thing.
The amount of damage and injury that will result from any given crash is directly related to that relative speed of the objects involved. Two cars traveling side-by-side at 110 km/h that tap quarter panels might be able to drive on relatively unscathed; think NASCAR superspeedway racing here, where cars routinely make contact at 200 miles per hour and continue on like nothing happened. But that same amount of contact between one of those cars and a stopped car – or, please forbid, a solid object like a concrete wall – will inevitably be disastrous.
When you put it into those terms, as maximum speeds come up on expressways, it’s time for minimum speeds to enter the discussion. Quebec has a speed limit of 100 km/h and a minimum speed of 60 km/h on most of its autoroutes. I’m not even convinced that 40 km/h is a tight enough gap, to be honest, but Quebec can get such hideous weather in the winter that setting a higher minimum could push people go to faster than they ought to at times. In normal conditions, though, if for whatever reason you can’t go within at least 30 km/h of the average speed of traffic – or, in Ontario’s pilot project regions, at least 80 km/h – you really shouldn’t be on the highway, and there are plenty of back roads throughout the province that can accommodate you. Going any slower creates a far more dangerous situation than someone cruising along a highway alone at 110 km/h or higher, and it’s another thing the OPP should consider throwing the book at people for in the pilot project zones.
Don’t take a mile just because you’ve been given an inch
Let’s be brutally honest here: for the vast majority of Ontarians, increasing the speed limit to 110 km/h on 400-series highways only makes the way they typically drive more legal. Apart from doing the things listed here, which are good ideas regardless, there’s no need to change anything about your driving behaviour just because that number has gone up. Please don’t ruin this for the rest of us by deciding that 130 is the new 120. The province has announced that the threshold for a street racing-related licence suspension and vehicle impoundment, which currently sits at 150 km/h, will remain in place, and the rest of the penalties ought to be kept the same as well to curtail this exact line of thinking. If we do this right, very little should change about the way traffic flows on our highways today other than that more of us pay better attention to making them safer for everyone.
If we can all pull up our socks and work to do better together, then maybe – just maybe – this higher speed limit pilot program will work, we’ll all have nice things for a change, and we can spend less time on our highways and more time living happily ever after.