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Motorists make their way along Lakeshore Blvd. during rush hour in Toronto. Friday, April 27, 2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Motorists make their way along Lakeshore Blvd. during rush hour in Toronto. Friday, April 27, 2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

Is it time to increase maximum speed limits? Add to ...

If you were to design the perfect speed trap, it would look a lot like Ontario. Its highway speed limits are among the lowest in the developed world. It’s illegal to use a radar detector, and there’s a law that allows roadside car seizures and fines of up to $10,000 for drivers caught exceeding the limit by 50 km/h.

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Speeding tickets are an Ontario growth industry. More than 750,000 drivers are convicted of speeding each year, generating millions of dollars in fines. In a 12-year period ending in 2010 – the most recent year that the province supplies statistics for – the number of speeding convictions increased by nearly 32 per cent, even though Ontario’s population grew by less than 16 per cent.

“They set the limit low, so everyone speeds,” says Chris Klimek, founder of Stop100.ca, an advocacy group. “The whole thing is a cash grab.”

I am fascinated with the politics and science of speed. How fast is too fast?

I recently spent a week in Germany, driving a new Porsche 911 on the Autobahn, which has no speed limit for much of its length. I cruised for hours at more than 200 km/h.

Back in Ontario, I started thinking about the logic of speed enforcement. Cruising on Hwy 401, I realized that the vast majority of traffic was travelling well above the 100 km/h limit; the median speed appeared to be in the 120 km/h range.

As a test, I set my cruise control for 100 and travelled from Toronto to Windsor, a distance of just under 400 km. In my four-hour trip, I was passed by hundreds of cars, including several OPP cruisers – almost no one obeyed the posted limit, including the police.

“There is a natural speed all over the planet,” says Klimek. “And it’s not 100. It’s 130. That’s the speed we gravitate to. We don’t want to be criminalized for driving at a safe and responsible speed.”

For politicians, selling a speed limit is not unlike selling a war – to get a buy-in, the public must believe that your cause is right. With a war, you sell freedom and justice. And when it comes to speed limits, you sell safety. For decades, police have pushed the idea that speed kills, and that the only way to make highways safe is by enforcing strict speed limits.

But does speed really kill?

When it comes to pure physics, it’s hard to argue otherwise. The force of a collision increases as the square of velocity. A collision at 100 km/h, for example, isn’t four times as bad as one at 25 km/h – it’s 16 times as bad.

But highway safety involves more than theoretical calculation. According to the World Health Organization, for example, it’s safer to drive in Germany, home of the fastest highways in the world, than it is in Canada: WHO data shows that Germany’s death rate is 6.9 per 100,000 cars. Canada’s rate is 13.

In countless studies on the relationship between speed and risk, although there is general agreement that lower speeds are theoretically safer, researchers have learned that real-world safety can involve a mind-boggling set of variables. Setting an artificially low limit, for example, can actually make a road more dangerous by creating a greater speed differential between the slowest and fastest drivers.

One of the most interesting studies on speed was published in 1964 by researcher David Solomon, who developed a graph that became known as “the Solomon Curve.” After plotting data gathered from over 10,000 highway crashes, Solomon showed that the likelihood of being in a crash follows a U-shaped curve, and that the drivers travelling at the traffic’s median speed (such as the drivers doing 120 km/h on Hwy 401) were least likely to be involved in an accident.

So is speed enforcement designed to make the roads safer, or is it a form of taxation? According to autoinsurance.org, speeding tickets generate more than $5-billion in revenue for North American municipalities each year. They also generate $10.2-billion in extra revenue for insurance companies, who add an average of $300 in surcharges for each ticket.

The site also found an inverse relationship between municipal growth and speed enforcement – on average, a 10 per cent decline in a city’s economic growth resulted in a 6.4 per cent increase in tickets issued. For a failing municipality, speeding tickets can serve as a “sin tax” (a category that also includes casinos and lotteries).

Martin Pietrucha, an engineering professor and traffic expert at Penn State University, explained in an interview that speed limits can be set several ways. Most methods involve detailed engineering studies of a given road – width, curve radius, sightlines, number of on-ramps, etc. This yields a “design speed” that the road can theoretically accommodate. But then there’s the all-important human factor: “You have to take driver ability into account,” says Pietrucha. “And there’s huge variation. So you have to allow for that.”

Experts also study what’s known as “free-flow” speed, measuring how fast cars travel in light traffic, then set the speed limit at the 85th percentile (the speed that 85 per cent of traffic drives at or below.)

But speed limits can also be set for political reasons – such as when the U.S. lowered the national limit to 55 mph during the 1970’s oil crisis. Politics also played a role in Ontario.

Back in the 1960s and early ’70s, the limit on Ontario highways was 113 km/h. Under pressure from the U.S., the province lowered the limit to 100 km/h in 1976.

And that’s where it remains today, even though most other jurisdictions have since raised theirs. Most U.S. states have a 70 mph (113 km/h) limit. The highest speed limit in North America is 85 mph (140 km/h) on Texas’s State Highway 130.

Ontario’s low limit is often defended on the basis of speed elasticity – the assumption that drivers will automatically exceed the posted limit by a certain margin. By this reasoning, increasing the limit could lead to speeds that are beyond the highway’s safe design limits.

Or maybe it wouldn’t. On Highway 130 in Texas (where the limit is 140 km/h) traffic studies have shown that more than 86 per cent of drivers operate at or below the limit. Although there are no official figures, observers such as Klimek estimate that the compliance rate is 10 per cent or lower.

This doesn’t surprise Pietrucha: “If limits are set artificially low, drivers will break them consistently. Compliance is partly due to perceived reasonableness.”

Tom Vanderbilt, author of an acclaimed book called Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, has spent years studying roads, engineering and human behaviour. Although he’s in favour of speed limits, he says that setting them too low isn’t the answer.

“For what it’s worth, I sometimes feel as if the limits are too low, in part because the road [larger highways that is] has so much safety cushion built in that it’s hard not to feel like you’re going slower than you really are.”

Klimek, who has an online petition urging a speed limit increase on Ontario highways, agrees. “Doing 100 on the 401 is a joke. There are no pedestrians, no kids playing with balls, no drivers backing out of driveways. These highways are the safest roads there are.”

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