The Vancouver Sun originally published this article in May 2009 (SENSE Co-Founder Ian Tootill is the author), however it is no longer available in their online archive.
In 1996, 25,000 names were gathered in British Columbia for a petition calling for the removal of photo radar and an independent review of speed limits. The review was completed in 2003 and it revealed what most drivers already knew; that limits on some BC highways are set incorrectly, mostly too low. Over the past 20 years, the BC population has increased by more than 30 percent and roadways have been busier than ever thanks to a recently robust economy. Despite this, we have enjoyed a reduction in crash-related fatalities of nearly 40 percent from a peak in 1990 – more cars, more trips, and fewer deaths.
Yet the shrill cries of “Speed Is Killing Us” are still heard. Ironically, the enforcement emphasis during the past six years, during a period of dramatic economic growth and road use, has been rightly redirected toward offences with a higher correlation, to at-fault crashes rather than speeding.
The RCMP now issues about 250,000 tickets per year for speeding, less than half issued during the peak of photo radar. If proponents of more speed enforcement were correct, there should have been a noticeable increase in fatalities during this time. It has not happened just as it did not happen in the United States subsequent to the 1996 removal, despite intense lobbying of special interests, of the federally mandated 55 mph limit.
The RCMP leadership in BC can be given credit for implementing a new philosophy of targeted enforcement which has produced real improvements in highway safety, moving from speed traps to crash black spots. However, the baseline – the law – remains flawed.
Laws must be set with the reasonable actions of the reasonable majority in mind, and there is no value in legislation that there is neither the will nor the means to enforce. Anything to the contrary and the door opens for arbitrary abuse, as is the case with photo radar.
If a particular limit is routinely and safely disobeyed by the reasonable majority, it can hardly be called valid. Incorrectly set speed limits are a guarantee of non-compliance, necessitate more police for enforcement, are expensive for motorists (increased fines and insurance), reduce road capacity and efficiency, increase disrespect for laws in general, and can even embarrass politicians whose actions are not consistent with the laws they oversee.
So why then, did the Ministry of Transportation refuse to implement the recommendations in the report it commissioned? Further, why spend taxpayer money in the first place, if there were no plans to act on it? Answer: Politics.
Judith Reid, then minister of transportation and highways, told me during a 2003 meeting that the optics of raising speed limits were bad. Nobody wanted to be the minister during a crash fatality on a road with a higher speed limit – especially after the public had been bombarded for several years with ICBC’s “Speed Is Killing Us” propaganda. Additionally, the change needed to be approved by then solicitor-general Rich Coleman, and that was not going to happen.
An odd thing occurs with the subject of speeding; few drivers see themselves as speeders. While many gasp at tickets for 40 km/h over the posted speed, few connect the dots and realize that most drivers are technically speeding when conditions are good. So if the legal speed limit on a highway is 90 km/h and 85 percent of the drivers are travelling 110 or 115, the question should be: Are they travelling excessively over the safe speed for conditions? In BC, the answer is often no.
Highway safety requires two key ingredients: minimal speed variance and reduced traffic volume. Increasing highway capacity and design speed is one way the government reduces volume, but danger increases when vehicles impede others.
A much-needed improvement in BC is “Keep Right Except to Pass” legislation allowing police to enforce signage recently placed on highways to enhance safety, by reducing both vehicle interactions and speed variance, HOV lanes included. The Institute of Transportation Engineers recommends setting speed limits based upon an upper limit (85th percentile) of free-flow vehicle speeds.
Drivers naturally comply with limits viewed as reasonable, thus reducing speed variance and potential interactions between vehicles. Everybody wins; scofflaws are fewer and easy to apprehend, drivers are safer and politicians need not fear their driving records.