A recent drive between Hope and Kamloops on the Coquihalla Highway confirmed that speed anarchy is the norm in British Columbia. During my trip, it seemed nearly everybody was ignoring rules set by the provincial government and local traffic authorities. Nobody travelled at or under the speed limits of 100 and 110 km/h, not even the lone RCMP truck that caused the bottleneck behind it at 20 clicks over.
If you say you don’t speed on high-ways, you are likely either not a driver, a member of a small (sometimes annoying and dangerous) minority, or simply a liar. Admittedly, some people are neither skilled nor responsible, and we need laws (plus training and testing) to guide them. However, when the “law is an ass,” as it clearly is on some highways in British Columbia, the predictable outcome is people ignore it. Many drivers in B.C. and Canada simply don’t take speed limits seriously.
Contrary to government propaganda that “speed is killing us,” exceeding the speed limit on highways is not causing carnage and mayhem – other than the kind instigated by police actions and government policies. Our government capitalizes on the ambiguity of what we define as “good” and “bad” drivers. By demonizing speed, they justify tens of millions in revenue from drivers, most of whom are travelling at safe and reasonable speeds. In fact, more than half of the $65 mil-lion-plus in annual B.C. ticket revenue is attributable to offences related to speeding.
How is this positive for driving safety and law enforcement integrity? Even the B.C. Government Employees Union’s recent proposal to expand the B.C. sheriffs’ mandate to include traffic enforcement as a “revenue-generating” tool shows the distrust and cynicism that’s developed on a broad level. If B.C. Police Association president Tom Stamatakis finds the proposal, as he says “insulting to B.C. tax-payers,” he might consider addressing the root cause instead of attacking the symptom.
The B.C government claims speed is a “major contributing factor” in more than 40 per cent of fatal crashes. Yet two-thirds of those are not the result of exceeding the speed limit. In the catch-all category of speed, the B.C. government lumps causes such as “too fast for conditions” (such as driving on black ice, although under the speed limit) and crashes where drugs and alcohol are overriding factors. A telling statistic – since exposure to risk is directly attributable to time on the road – is deaths per billion vehicle kilometres travelled. Canada ranks third from last among countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, including Ger-many, where speed limits and travel speeds are significantly higher. If there was merit to the argument that slower is better, it’s not apparent from the evidence.
We have some of the best roads in the world, with automobiles that are increasingly better engineered for speed and safety than those in decades past.
The Coquihalla originally cost $848 million and B.C. spends more than $1.4 billion on annual highway maintenance and construction. Why are we spending all this money building and maintaining highways and buying ever faster and safer vehicles, only to crawl along at 80 to 110 km/h?
You can travel all over the planet and experience great driving on worse roads and in worse vehicles than in B.C. You will see teamwork among drivers to ensure traffic flow and safety: Drivers signal lane changes, keep right except to pass and pay attention. But come here and drivers are often adversarial. In B.C., too often our laws protect stupid drivers and punish good ones; as a result, awful driving is tolerated and some-times encouraged.
Not long ago, I followed a faster driver on Highway 1 who, in my opinion, was a very good driver, the kind I felt safe being on the road with. I could anticipate his moves and he was courteous, keeping his distance, keeping right except to pass and using his turn signals. In fact, my passenger and I discussed his driving and concluded it was model driver behaviour. Just west of Hope, an RCMP cruiser, waiting on an on-ramp, apprehended him. It turned out they had tracked him by helicopter on the Coquihalla at more than 40 km/h over the speed limit. A charge of excessive speed in B.C. involves not only a fine and points, but now a vehicle seizure. Those who set and execute the priorities for B.C. traffic enforcement thought it better to spend thousands of dollars in helicopter time to nail a safe and courteous driver, impound his vehicle, forcibly abandon him and his family, and assess thousands in fines, fees and penalty points.
I frequently avoid road travel in the province because I am more terrified of law enforcement than I am of encountering irresponsible and dangerous driving. And I say this as a motorcyclist who twice in the past ended up in hospital and was once nearly killed, after being struck by two drivers, on different occasions, who were dangerous for reasons other than their speed.
The problems on our roads have never been as simple as “speed is killing us.”
There are more than 10,000 vehicles per day travelling the Coquihalla between Hope and Merritt and more than 25,000 travelling all three segments when Kamloops and Kelowna are included.
Think how many more people, goods and services could make use of the road if 30 to 60 minutes were reduced from travel time, and better, if the threat of vehicle seizure was gone for simply travelling as the road was intended.
Until speed limits are set with the principle that the safe actions of the reasonable majority are considered legal, it appears that politics and good intentions trump what society is safely doing anyway.