Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for October 4th, 2013

BC Highway Speed Limits Review

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Canadian speed limit sign

“A Canadian speed limit sign in British Columbia, taken on the 99 freeway just east of Ladner.” photo by David Herrera on flickr : creative commons license

I first saw something about this on twitter this morning. A journalist wanted me to comment (on tv, this evening) but we can’t make the timing work, though our telephone call did get my mind working. Then – also on Twitter – this page popped up which tells us more about what is intended. The Minister this morning was saying that it is only the limits that are going to be reviewed not enforcement. Which is a pity, in my view. And apparently it is not just about raising limits on newer rural highways

This review isn’t focused on increasing speed limits, rather making sure we have the right speed limits.

So in some cases speed limits might be reduced. Yeah, right.

There is a real problem with speed limits in BC, and that is not the level that they are set at The problem is that too many drivers believe that the speed limit does not apply to them. They have a car which is capable of much higher speeds, and, like all drivers, they know that they are of above average ability. Speed limits, according to this mind set, are merely suggestions for the elderly and those driving older, cheaper models. An even greater proportion of drivers view speed limits as the speed at which everybody ought to drive at, no matter what the conditions. Anyone driving slower than the posted speed is simply trying to get in everyone else’s way and needs to be taught a lesson. So tailgating, honking, light flashing and alarming manoeuvres  are mandated.

Ever since Gordon Campbell secured his personal popularity by abolishing photo radar, the respect for speed limits has diminished. I have written about that here quite often. I have also pointed to the simple facts of physics that when collisions do occur, severities increase with speed. What is a fender bender at 30 km/hr is fatal at 130.  If speed limits are widely ignored – and my experience suggests that is the case, and you can repeat that experimentally by observing the speed limit on any rural highway and count those who overtake you – then it probably does not make a great deal of difference what the posted speed is. The people who drive fast will continue to drive at whatever speed they feel like, because they do not have any need to consider the consequences.

We have, thanks to pressure from a very powerful lobby group (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), reduced our tolerance for drinking and driving. Enforcement has been increased, to the point of actually infringing a number of important legal principles like due process, and stop without cause. Presumption of innocence has long been dead. Attitudes have shifted, and people worry when they drink and drive: not that they might cause a death or severe injury to themselves or others, but that they will be apprehended and have to pay a penalty. And that has affected enough people that places that serve alcohol have noticed an impact on their businesses. It was not enough, unfortunately, to ensure that Gordon Campbell was driven from office when found guilty of drunk driving in Hawaii.

I believe that caving to the loud protests against photo radar has had an equal and opposite effect. Firstly, when there was photo radar, the police announced a margin of tolerance. Ever since there has been a widespread popular belief, that a speed limit sign can have 10% added to it before running the risk of penalty. Not that that was the tolerance level on photo radar, and not that that is now significant. But secondly, the very idea that speed limits need to be enforced is now regarded as some quaint obsession. The police – runs this popular belief – would be better employed tracking down thieves or hooligans, not otherwise Good People who happen not to have noticed either their speedometer or the road side sign. Or that the sign was posted by people more concerned with political correctness than “real” road safety.

Raising speed limits will certainly appeal to a significant sector of the population. But I think those people are more than likely BC Liberal voters already. I suppose there are some Conservatives – and Libertarians – that might be won over. But the rural, car/truck driving longer distance types are already on side. This move will not do anything to win over those who have other concerns, but it does appeal to the BC Liberal base.

The other thing that needs to be noted is that no one is talking about fuel consumption. Higher speeds increase it, which means that emissions increase too: specifically greenhouse gas emissions. We are boiling the planet, and must reduce our emissions – and should have started doing that twenty years ago or more. The science of the impact of human activity on climate change is not in doubt. The need to reduce fossil fuel use is not negotiable. But that is not part of this review. Nowhere is it even mentioned. The only time I can recall that speed limits were generally reduced was the first oil shock. It had nothing to do with road safety – though that was its immediate effect. Every road in the US that had previously not had a posted limit, was now reduced to 55mph. That was designed with one end in view: reduce gasoline consumption. It did, but not by very much apparently, and the need to do that has not gone away. It is now even more important than it was then. But I do not expect that to be of much concern to this government, based on their current obsessions.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 4, 2013 at 1:17 pm