New Research Tells us Old Story on Speed Limits

Would a higher speed limit just cause everyone to drive faster? The research suggests not, writes Jim Kenzie.

By Jim Kenzie Wheels.ca

May 26, 2017 5 min. read

Article was updated 6 years ago

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Would you like to know how to save lives on our highways?

Simple. Raise the speed limits.

Yes, I have been down this road before. But new research has come to light which bears re-examining this issue.

Raising speed limits to save lives — sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it?

Surely, if you crash at a higher speed, there is likely to be more damage?

I’m not trying to refute the laws of physics here; the above sentence is true. But the key word in that sentence is ‘if.’ It requires us to look a bit beyond what is staring us in the face.

For example, it is intuitively obvious just from looking out your window that the world is flat. Anyone who says differently might be burned at the stake. OK, so Galileo was only imprisoned.

It’s only when we look at reality from a larger perspective that we understand what’s really going on.

It was a gentleman named John Tomerlin writing in Road & Track magazine many years ago that first brought this particular truth to light for me.

More recently, Lt. Gary Megge of the Michigan State Police has expanded on these ideas. Notably, that traffic is generally going to drive at the speed at which the road was designed to be driven — typically for a modern freeway, around 120-130 km/h.

The theory suggests that most traffic doesn’t pay any attention to speed limit signs, anyway (a brief stint on the 407 will support that thesis ...) which is why raising the speed limit as has been done in B.C. and Saskatchewan recently does not raise the number of crashes.

Speed Limits Ontario

In fact, it reduces them, and here’s why. According to Lt. Megge, roughly 10 per cent of drivers actually obey the speed limit, regardless of how low it may be. “Obey the law!” is their mantra.

Ironically perhaps, it is they who cause the greatest danger. How?

Because (and I apologize for stating the semi-obvious) if everyone is going at or close to the same speed, there is in effect nobody to run into. True, if you run off the road entirely and hit a bridge abutment, it will hurt more at 120 km/h than it would at 100. But that sort of crash is extremely rare, and besides, if you hit something solid at 100 km/h, you’re probably dead anyway, and you can’t be 20 per cent more dead.

It is speed differential, the ‘gradient’ of speeds on the highway, that determines how safe the road is. The key is to get everyone going more or less the same speed, minimize that gradient, and we all get home safely.

Why is this so hard for politicians to see?

This is speculation on my part, but perhaps there are too many lawyers in government and not enough engineers. (You may know or may have guessed that I am an engineer ...).

So, the key to safer roads? Quite simple, actually — make the speed limit closer to the ‘natural’ speed of the road, closer to the speed at which the road was designed to be driven upon, so that more people are driving closer to the same speed and there are fewer people to run into.

Geez, that sounds simple enough, even for a lawyer to understand. And my father was a lawyer. Sorry, Dad ...

The generally accepted rule in the highway engineering ‘community’ is to set the limit at 85 per cent of the average speed of the road, which on our freeways would be somewhere around 120 to 130 km/h. The science says everyone gets home sooner, and more safely.
Also Read: 10 Ways to Satisfy Your Need for Speed

What could possibly be wrong with that? Oh, yeah, there would be less money raised in traffic fines. Gosh, you don’t think that crosses the minds of our lawyer-politicians, do you? Perish the thought.

School zones? Hospital zones? Go ahead and enforce the whee out of lower speed limits there. Highways? Set a speed limit closer to the natural speed of the road, and watch the fatality statistics start to drop.

But, you may argue, wouldn’t a higher speed limit just cause everyone to drive faster? Again, the research suggests not. Again, it is this natural speed of the road that determines how fast the vast majority of people drive, not some number painted on a sign.

True, there are ‘outliers,’ idiots who go 200 km/h or more. These people are not traffic law violators, they are people who have issues that are well beyond the reach of the traffic court system. The vast majority of us should not be endangered even further by attempting to control the actions of so very few, and with such little chance of success.

Raising speed limits to make our roads safer isn’t impossible. As I noted, British Columbia and Saskatchewan have done it. Ontario could and should be next.

Do our politicians have the courage to be correct for a change? We can only hope.

If you will allow me to go back to another old chestnut, it would also help — not just our safety, but also our traffic flow — if the police and the courts would get together and enforce Section 147 (1) of the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, which clearly states that you must drive in the right lane unless passing or preparing to turn left.

Speed Limits Ontario

Now, the Justices of the Peace tell me they would convict if the police would write the tickets; the police tell me they would write the tickets if the JPs would convict.

Mr./Ms. Police Officer, please meet Ms./Mr. Justice of the Peace.

Of course, it would also help immensely if the Ministry of Transportation would fix the most dangerous aspect of our roads — the right lane, the lane that the law correctly demands that we drive in, keeps disappearing. How the heck can we drive according to the law when our roads effectively keep encouraging us to break the law?

If the police want to know what they should be doing when photo radar is killed once and for all (a topic for another day), enforcing this particular traffic law (after impaired driving and wearing seatbelts, the only highway traffic act item worth enforcing) would be a good place to start.

You can read more about Lt. Megge and his work online at: Quartz

If only we would listen ...

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