Monday, December 10, 2007

The problem with speed limits is that they are too low
We could raise limits by 10-20 km/h and save time, money and lives

Last month, an EKOS Research study for Transport Canada found seven out of 10 Canadians freely admit to exceeding speed limits from time to time, with another 11 per cent copping to speeding "only on highways." Average speeding margins were 12 kilometres per hour over the limit on highways, 10 km/h on two-lane highways/country roads and seven km/h on residential streets.

The report contends speeders underestimate their true speed and "delude themselves" into thinking their behaviour really isn't that bad - acknowledging they are technically breaking the law, but not in a way that endangers either themselves or others.

Perhaps the delusion is that moderate speeding poses a serious and unacceptable risk, and the real "problem" is that Canadian speed limits are too low, which 51 per cent of survey respondents said they are, and a good reason why most Canadians frequently exceed them.

There is nothing magically authoritative about pegging the legal limit at a particular figure. It's a broad generality at best, a highly relative value judgment on a reasonable trade-off between safety and efficiency. Ergo, if the speed limit was set at 50 km/h on highways (and could be enforced), it's certain fewer people would be killed or hurt in highway crashes, but it is arbitrarily deemed a higher number of fatalities and maimings are tolerable, since we set the highest highway speed limit at more than twice that figure.

Brian Jonah, director of road safety programs at Transport Canada, maintained the chance of an accident resulting in a fatality is reduced by one per cent with every five km/h reduction in speed. I'd like to review the science of that assertion, which flies in the face of empirical reality in the United States and Europe.

Following the 1973 oil crisis and the U.S. government's imposition of a national 55 mph (88 km/h) limit, statistical analyses indicate highway safety worsened. And when Congress finally repealed federal speed limits in November 1995, to much caterwauling from the "speed-kills" crowd, with dire predictions of 6,400 increased deaths and a million additional injuries, the actual effect was diametrically opposite. Traffic deaths dropped to a record low by 1997, including in the 33 states that had immediately raised their speed limits. Meanwhile, Americans saved about 200 million person-hours in terms of less time spent on the road, with a reported net economic benefit of higher speed limits of $2 billion to $3 billion a year. A U.S. National Research Council panel pegged the cost of the 55-mph limit at about one billion person-hours per year.

Likewise, a study by the U.S. National Motorists Association found the safest period on Montana's Interstate highways was when there were no daytime speed limits or enforceable speed laws at all. When Montana implemented a new "safety program," imposing speed limits and enforcement, the state's fatal accident rate didn't just increase, it doubled, according to NMA statistics.

Other interesting findings of the Montana study were that vehicles traveling faster than average had the lowest accident rates, and there was no positive correlation between speed enforcement and accident rates on rural highways. If anything, the highways became less safe with enforcement.

By global standards, North American speed limits are absurdly low. In most European countries the highway speed limit is either 120 km/h or 130 km/h. Britain and Sweden have the strictest limits at 110 km/h. About three-quarters of the famous German Autobahnen have no speed limit at all. The "recommended velocity" is 130 km/h, but average speeds in unregulated areas are about 150 km/h. Nevertheless, the overall safety record on Autobahnen is comparable to that on controlled-access highways in European countries with speed limits. A 2005 study by the German Interior Ministry found sections with unrestricted speed had the same accident record as sections with speed limits.

The preponderance of evidence, as opposed to supposition, prejudice, hysteria and conventional wisdom, indicates speed, per se, doesn't "kill," that there are massive economic costs consequential to imposing unnecessarily low speed limits, and that there is a logical and legitimate case for raising - not lowering - speed limits on Canadian highways.

I'm confident we could bump the maximum speed limit to 120 or 130 km/h quite satisfactorily, in the mature understanding that any speed limit involves arbitrary compromise among fuel economy, safety and economics. We could save lives and gas by driving 50 km/h, but that would be silly, wouldn't it?

Charles W. Moore is freelance writer from Nova Scotia.

From Here.

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