Are Higher Speed Limits Safer?

speedsafelyThe group behind Stop100 think so. They are actively petitioning to raise the speed limits of 400-series highways in Ontario to 120km/hr, and they have already gathered over 25,000 signatures. But this seems counter-intuitive. How is a faster speed limit a safe alternative to the current speed of 100km/hr? Stop100’s website claims that “many countries with higher speed limits observe lower or similar fatality rates to Ontario.”

When speed limits are low, drivers tend to do one of two things. Most people drive faster, keeping a sharp eye out for police radar, while others choose to drive exactly the limit. This creates a chaotic highway filled with obstacles, where as a driver, you are continually speeding up to go around slow drivers, and then dodging out of the way of other, much faster, drivers.

The more chaotic the highway, the more panic ensues, and the more the fast/slow extremes are pushed. People who drive faster will rip by a cluster of slow-moving traffic in the left lane to avoid the mess. This means that slower drivers in the left lane need to change lanes quickly, bogging up the middle lanes. Some people react to the chaos by going even slower than the speed limit, so they can assess when to change lanes and focus on safety.

Michigan recently increased their speed limit on the I-69 to 70mph (112 km/hr). Traffic experts discovered some interesting outcomes. “The speed of traffic did not increase,” said a traffic expert with the state police, “There were some subtle changes. We saw fewer slow drivers and fewer drivers going really fast. Ideally, the more people you can get going at a similar speed, the safer it will be.”

It turns out that when the speed limit is higher, people going exactly the speed limit or slower feel comfortable speeding up, because they are still within the law. People going too fast do not need to maneuver around so much slow-moving traffic, and are less distracted, as they no longer need to keep an eye out for the police.

Some critics point out that the problem is not the speed, but the speed differential. They assert that it is not the people driving at 100km/hr, but the people driving way over the speed limit at 120km/hr, that present the most danger.

The counter to that argument is that yes, while people who are driving at 20km/hr over the speed limit are being irresponsible, a majority of drivers do it. Why? Is the world full of people who aim to break the law? Perhaps it is more because on a wide open highway with clear visibility, 100km/hr is slower than the natural driving speed.

All drivers have experienced that moment where they are sailing along, quite in control and comfortable, and realize they are speeding. Sometimes it’s too late, and they have been issued a ticket from roadside radar. Even though a driver may get a photo radar ticket for going too fast at this time, they are arguably not a danger on the road.

For many years, the response to speeding has been to increase police radar and hand out more and more fines. At some point we must ask the following question: How many speeding tickets must be issued before we stop pointing the finger of blame at the majority of drivers, and begin to assess the rules that govern the road? In Ontario, where the speed limit on 400-series highways has been criticized as cash grab for the government, perhaps that moment has already passed.

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