Ian Tootill, co-founder SENSE BC

Setting the record straight.

by Ian Tootill

[Revised for accuracy November 10, and again on November 15, 2018]

During October in BC, the anti-motorist crowd of taxpayer-funded academic cycling advocates was hard at it again. This time they ran to the media waving a study implying increased speed limits on some BC highways had caused a significant increase in crashes and fatalities. Post Media’s Pamela Fayerman happily wrote what seemed like a promo piece with the headline “Speed limit hikes by former BC government led to vastly more fatalities, injuries, crashes” seemingly without any critical examination of the claims. This was followed up by media all over BC, parroting and repeating the headline, again with few critically examining the original report. And then, as if these people don’t get enough of the bully pulpit on the tax payers’ dime, Post Media published a follow up op-ed by local academic cycling advocates Coastal Health’s Dr. John Carsley and UBC’s Kay Teschke claiming, among other things: a) they told the government so, and b) somehow there was a conspiracy to shut them out of the 2013-14 rural highway speed limit review consultation process.

Few with any knowledge of statistics would have agreed to the headline over Fayerman’s story; the premise of it was that speed limit signs had changed and therefore crashes and deaths had risen. Even the authors’ own research indicates speeds hardly changed in affected areas (average speeds changed from 94.0 to 94.3). The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) numbers indicated some speeds actually dropped in affected segments. 85th percentile speeds remained roughly the same and dropped in some cases.

Yet, according to Fayerman, they blamed a speed limit change (not travel speeds) for their so-called increases. Even their study’s claim of higher crashes and fatalities could only estimate a range between 10 to 225%.

Their study was published in a journal called Sustainability which is a “rapid publication” (translation: minimal peer review process) journal describing itself as providing an “advanced forum for studies related to sustainability and sustainable development”.

Got that? I hope so, because in the eyes of many people pushing the eco-cycling agenda, private autos have no place in the world of sustainability.

But I digress.

The study was questionable to the point that an Assistant Professor with the University of Washington’s Sustainable Transportation Lab wasted no time in writing a critical paper asking Did BC’s speed limit increase lead to more deaths? stating “In short, I would not have recommended publication if I had been a peer reviewer, due to many usual and unexplained analytical decisions, inadequate description of methods and a lack of robustness checks to ensure that the claimed results were not just a statistical quirk.”

[Update: The Professor later retracted some, not all, of his concerns after a back-and-forth with the authors of the study.]

In our opinion, the authors of the study (Brubacher, Lovegrove, et. al.) based their thesis around the concept that correlation equals causation.

If you’re going to claim speed is the cause of more crashes on the roadways in question, surely you would examine speed’s role in collisions in these locations?

Unbelievably and conveniently they did not.

Following the logic of these cycling enthusiast authors, if speed limits are 110 km/h and I (and many others) drive 125 km/h, and the next day the sign changes to 120 km/h and I continue to drive 125 km/h, but I then have a crash, the change of the numbers on the signs are to be blamed.

That’s the premise behind the report which they went to a lot of time and money, presumably tax payer money via a taxpayer-funded $249,662 grant, to have us believe.

Then along came Carsley and Teschke’s predictable op-ed last week: “Turns out- Duh!- That increasing speed limits didn’t increase highway safety”. You can read it here but essentially what they said was:

  1. We told you deaths would go up and they did.
  2. We were prevented by the government from providing our input into the 2014 Rural Highway Safety and Speed Review and the process was “strange”.
  3. How dare they invite SENSE BC as a “key stakeholder”?
  4. SENSE BC is a tiny “pro-speed” and “anti-enforcement” lobby.
  5. Speed limits should drop, road safety will improve.

Besides Carsley’s and Teschke’s piece being riddled with inaccuracies and false assumptions, it just reeked of entitlement and condescension. The condescension part is strange considering in a recent exchange about speed limits I had with Teschke on Twitter, she replied “…using the 85th percentile on highways puts enormous pressure on older drivers (like me) to drive at speeds they don’t feel comfortable with.” Worrying to me is that she didn’t understand the principles behind speed limit setting using the 85th percentile, yet she presented herself as some sort of expert who should be permitted to meddle in speed limit setting.

But I digress, again.

It’s true, the academic/health cycling lobby (which the study authors and op-ed writers appear to be part of) in BC has been claiming higher speed limits will cause increased carnage on our roads. However, they were not shut out of any stakeholder meetings. In fact, all of BC had an opportunity for input during a several month long series of consultations and open houses conducted by ICBC. They wanted to be “invited”. Apparently they were miffed that the red carpet wasn’t rolled out for them for the 2014 Speed Limit Review, as if somehow their opinions carried more weight than everyone else’s, and thoroughly offended that their recommendations didn’t override the work provincial MOTI engineers do.

It’s petty, but also small wonder the lobby wasted no time in feeding media stories like this one, mere months after the signs were changed, with irresponsible hyperbolic claims that crashes were rising because the speed limit rose.

They’ve been relentless in the pursuit of the failure, of what they refer to as the “experiment” of applying proven and recommended engineering principles in speed limit setting.

Our response to Carsley and Teschke’s mischievous description of what we do is as follows:

SENSE BC doesn’t advocate more speed and we are not a “pro-speed” nor an “anti-enforcement” lobby group. We argue for integrity in speed limits which don’t make scofflaws out of the reasonable and safe majority of drivers, and traffic laws which don’t unjustly punish people and empty the wallets of motorists.

We didn’t recommend “more speed”, instead we advocated for the use of the 85th percentile as a method of determining speed limits which has long been the recommendation of the Institute of Transportation Engineers and adopted by numerous transportation regulatory agencies in the US and elsewhere in the world. It’s supposed to be used by our own MOTI. We’ve long argued for regular and frequent “INDEPENDENT” reviews of speed limits with the re-setting of limits without the political or ideological interference which the cycling lobby advocates. These reviews by the professionals can sometimes result in reductions in speed limits, which we’d accept if the principles are properly applied. We support enforcement of reasonable traffic laws.

In 2014, the engineers at MOTI were permitted to do their jobs without interference and – no surprise – it did mean higher limits (not higher speeds) in the case of some highways. Some highways – just 1,300 km of 9,100 km of the rural provincial highways saw limits raised.

The group of anti-motorists had plenty of cheerleaders in the stakeholder echo chamber as they always do, each one of them seemingly with a dog in the race. Every one of the historical group of stakeholders, which yield influence over what should be the domain of engineers without the stakeholders’ interference, have something to gain financially and / or socially by ensuring speed limits continue to be meddled with politically.

SENSE BC doesn’t currently make or take a dime for what we do. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for anyone else in that group.

As for Dr. Carsley, his predecessor and some of his colleagues; successive public health physicians take a broad interpretation of their job descriptions and view the examination of road safety, and their recommendations for it, as part of their responsibility to ensure a healthy population. We say that it’s not the job of doctors to be doing the job of engineers just as it’s not the job of engineers do be making health recommendations. Their jobs should be to stick to health issues which are in line with their disciplines like epidemiology. For example, we’ve got an opioid crisis in BC where 3 times as many people are killed compared to car crashes, in spite of the fact that vehicle travel is virtually ubiquitous while drug use is not.

These people are out chasing squirrels on our dime.

It’s a fantastic tax payer funded niche the group of cycling enthusiast academics have carved for themselves.

Yet somehow to them it’s “strange” the only grassroots motorists’ (SENSE BC) representative was “invited” to be a stakeholder? SENSE BC’s never been “invited” to be a stakeholder btw; rather, we’ve scrapped our way in to nearly every conversation we’ve had with government. I guess in their eyes one only gets to be a stakeholder if you’re funded?

In another interaction in the comments under his article, I challenged Dr. Carsley on what appears to be obvious stakeholder anti-motorist bias and their inaction on certain safety issues which had existed in the establishment stakeholder groups seemingly forever. Dr. Carsley claimed there was never any push back on Keep Right Except to Pass signage, road markings and legislation.

However, that’s not true. Many in “Road Safety” did their utmost to thwart Keep Right Except to Pass laws for years. Former Supt. of Motor Vehicles Steve Martin saw no merit in it, and we can go down the list of former AGs, SGs and Ministers of Transportation who did ZILCH for or worse, prevented that one little change which does so much to reduce stress and danger on the road. The same could be said for many, but not all, former Ministers of Transportation who took little interest in their portfolios and who neglected to deal with glaring dysfunction concerning speed limits setting. In fact, an independent review of BC highways was done in 2002 and the report recommendations were shelved due to politics and pressure.

However, as the Transportation Minister at the time of the 2014 Review, Todd Stone took great interest in his portfolio, pushed back on political noise, and did the right thing by relying on engineering staff and their work.

But the taxpayer paid health / cycling lobby got their noses pushed out of joint, so their reaction was to push stories like this a mere seven months after the signs were changed.

The authors of these types of stories seem to have an agenda, and it’s not to be the drivers’ friend.

They appear to be siding with those who are working for the elimination of the private automobile through a thousand cuts and inconveniences dressed up as safety. They (Vision Zero cycling advocates) cannot accept, nor have they ever accepted, that highway speed limits should be the responsibility of the capable engineers responsible for MOTI. They are interfering, controlling, sociopolitical cycling advocates who want “Safe Systems” speed limits on our highways and roadways – not to make roads safer for all, but to frustrate everyone out of vehicles. This is a Vision Zero dream where everyone is limited to 30 km/h in cities (15 km/h in residential) and 70 km/h on any highway that doesn’t have a divided median that absolutely prevents any head-on crash – which is much of BC’s rural highways. They wish for a utopia where everyone walks, cycles or takes transit everywhere. They envision a road network where zero deaths occur, and they’ve been somewhat successful in influencing RoadSafety BC (BC Government) to adopt the impossible goal of zero deaths by 2020 as part of their mission statement.

In imposing their utopian world views on the rest of us, they care not that not everyone is not an urban condo dweller nor that BC is a province which is double the size of their Vision Zero idol of Sweden. Forget it if you want to pack your barbeque and take the family to a park, go on a trip, pack your tools, need your vehicle for a job, or simply go anywhere on our vast network of roads where transit and bikes either don’t exist or won’t work.

How do they plan to ensure compliance with their zero vision, unrealistic (and uneconomic) traffic laws you might ask? This is the same group of agitators looking for the return of Photo Radar 2.0 (a.k.a. Average Speed Cameras). Knowing that drivers drive according to the natural speed of the road, not some arbitrary sign (refer back to the negligible change in travel speeds in their report after raising limits), they are fully aware that automated enforcement will absolutely clobber motorists. For their unrealistic and unattainable vision of urban utopia it will be you and I, the average safe and reasonable BC motorist, who will be targeted.

Big brother surveillance, the introduction of Photo Radar 2.0, ubiquitous roving traffic enforcement units; be ready, as your turn is coming.

Their vision of nirvana is dystopian indeed for the rest of us.