Stephen Rees's blog

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

BC Highway Speed Limits Review

with 9 comments

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

9 Responses

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  1. My preference is this: no speed limits on (true) roads, engineered to be safe at any speed; and very low limits (30kmh or below), and engineering that enforces this, on (true) streets. First ensure every thoroughfare is unambiguously a road – rural, no buildings, no intersections, no parking – or a street – sidewalks, bikelanes, transit, buildings, parking etc.

    Low limits on wide streets is tantamount to entrapment. Wide streets, of course, ought to be completed or otherwise narrowed.


    October 4, 2013 at 1:22 pm

  2. There is no road “engineered to be safe at any speed”. It is not possible. Every road has a “design speed” – just as every bridge has a load limit – and there is some margin for error. But “safe” is not an absolute, and also the acceptable level of safety achieved relies on a wide number of variables, and the road design is only one of many elements.

    Your preference would require nearly every street and road to be rebuilt, and is quite unrealistic.

    Fortunately, what is currently proposed does not affect streets at all, and will only impact provincial highways in rural areas.

    Stephen Rees

    October 4, 2013 at 1:31 pm

  3. Thanks for covering this Stephen. My response to the call for Tweets was this: What problem are we trying to solve here? Are we not burning enough gas? Are roads too safe?


    October 4, 2013 at 1:43 pm

  4. It used to be a time when Canada was a leader in road safety,with almost twice less fatality per inhabitant that in Europe, that was not that long time ago…but things has changed a lot in the last 15 years in Europe.

    at ~350 road fatalities a year (last published statistics for year 2010) in BC, , that is a fataility rate of ~80death/ million. In Europe it is 60death/million:

    Click to access historical_evol_popul.pdf

    Only 5 European countries does worst than BC, Bulgaria, Romania and the like. People has 3 time more chance to died on a BC road than a sweden road (wihch ihas also mountain and snowy winter…)

    What Europe did in the last 15 years?

    -Photo radar is nown wide spread everywhere (and that for sure has a dramatic effect on road safety!)
    -When a road is invitating to speed higher than posted limit, posted speed limit : road is redesigned (round about everywhere !) to prevent high speed.
    -…and also have less people driving (that is encouraging other and safer transportation mode)

    Not sure, why the BC liberals don’t care a dime about road safety, since the social cost is tremendous


    October 4, 2013 at 9:33 pm

  5. The US introduced energy saving speed limits when my Kingston based job at Alcan included visiting a production plant in Oswego, NY .

    None of us that drove down found the speed restriction onerous. We had just been through the massive oil shock of 1973 when oil delivery delays had impacted Alcan production. We thought the speed limits logical.

    The US government move did not stop us thinking of other ways to reduce energy use and we could not help noticing there were many empty beverage cans on the highway.. . . ..

    One outcome of the period is a way to recycle used beverage containers.. In 1981 the method went into production in Oswego. By 1989 Alcan made twice as much fresh metal from used beverage cans as was made in Kitimat. And the new metal arrived “pre-delivered” to Europe and the US. The step became the economic driver of municipal waste recycling.

    Lowered speed limits would trigger thoughts in BC. Some thoughts may be unhelpful —-but some could increase productivity and reduce carbon use as happened despite the slow road to Oswego in the 1970’s..

    . . .


    October 5, 2013 at 12:15 pm

  6. We have the same problem here: I was recently told by someone that it made ‘no difference’ if a pedestrian is hit at 20 or 50km/h.

    Famously we do have som Autobahns here with no speed limit (although they aren’t as common as people think) the trouble is that firstly when there is a crash on a ‘no speed limit’ Autobahn the results are horrific, and that it tends to create a culture where drivers think they can drive as fast as they want on residential streets as well. I’ve lost count of the times I was verbally abused by drivers for going ‘too slowly’ on residential roads with a speed limit of 7km/h, and demanding that I ‘get out of the way’.

    Andy in Germany

    October 6, 2013 at 12:05 am

  7. By a curious coincidence, it was 2 news regarding speed limit ine EUrope, over the week-end:

    -UK has apparently shelved the idea to increase its speed limit from 70mph to 80mph (like in France or Italy) on its motorway network
    -France, is considering reducing its speed limit on its “non divided” highway network from 90km/h to 80km/h (like in Switzerland,…and BC!)

    the later measure is considered able to save 450 life/year according to a report.
    (more here but in French)…

    In the previous link I have provided, you would notice a dramatic fatality rate reduction in France from year 2002 to 2003 (>20%)…It happened it was the year the government changed its policy to a “zero tolerance” regarding road delinquance: speed control was allowing a certain margin tolerance before 2002, since that time, people get ticketed even if they go 1km over the speed-limit (+ radar margin error)…I remember Frances Bula experimented to her depend this “zero tolerance” policy 😉


    October 6, 2013 at 10:35 pm

  8. I don’t have a big problem with the idea of a review, because I think there probably are some places where the speed limits are not consistent with the road infrastructure. But the process should be transparent and engineering factors should be cited in each case where there is a change.

    And, in my ideal fantasy world, along with making a big noise about how limits are being raised in the places where it’s appropriate to do so, the government should take the political opportunity to announce that the speed limits on all roads would now be strictly enforced.

    Sean Nelson

    October 7, 2013 at 9:18 am

  9. I have decided to add a comment rather than update the post

    “More B.C. drivers want return of photo radar than higher speed limits: Poll” a headline in the Richmond Review that cites an Insights West survey. This shows that I am not alone. Indeed 48% of people polled in my age cohort (55+) support bringing back photo radar.

    And one commenter on a Peace Arch news story which reported Eric Donerty’s idea of paying for transit expansion through tolls on border crossings had this idea

    Eric Doherty should think outside the box. Rather than focusing on people who “do not pay their fair share,” why not focus on people “who break the law?”

    I suggest bringing back photo radar will provide huge benefits. It will reduce fatalities, lower our associated health-care costs, produce less air pollution, reduce the cost of gasoline, prolong the availability of a non-renewable resource, and will fill the coffers for TransLink.

    Calgary alone makes over $40 million/year on photo radar. With the population of metro Vancouver and our penchant for driving fast, how about 10 times that, it’s a win-win all around. What are you waiting for, Christy?

    Simon Bergen-Henengouwen, White Rock

    We were driving back from Harrison Hot Springs on Highway #1 through Burnaby recently. This is currently a construction zone (fines double) with an 80 km/hr limit. My partner carefully drive at the speed limit – every other vehicle passed us. If there had been photo radar a sizeable chunk of the cost of this project could have been recovered right there and then. Actually average speed cameras would have done an even better job.

    Stephen Rees

    December 11, 2013 at 11:01 am

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