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Believe it or not, there is science involved in setting speed limits. (iStock Photo)
Believe it or not, there is science involved in setting speed limits. (iStock Photo)

Driving Concerns

Speed traps: For safety or just a cash grab? Add to ...

There’s an intersection near my house where the speed limit is 60 km/h but changes to 80 and then 100 shortly after the light (it’s the highway out of town). Police are often there to catch people who are speeding up early and who don’t realize that it’s still 60. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. That said, there have been many accidents there. Here’s my question: do police choose these spots to make money or is there evidence that speed traps reduce accidents? – Xian, Ontario.

The threat of a ticket – whether it’s for speeding, distracted driving or racing through a red light – tends to make more drivers follow the law, said a traffic safety expert.

“The research supports the notion that if people believe they will get caught, they will more likely change their behaviour – reduce their speed, not drink and drive, not be distracted at the wheel,” said Ward Vanlaar, chief operating officer of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation. “This can be accomplished by choosing locations and times for enforcement strategically.”

Even if seeing somebody pulled over in a speed trap slows other drivers down, are there better ways to slow drivers down before they get caught? Some cities use flashing signs in residential areas that show drivers when they’re speeding. Earlier this year, an Edmonton man was fined $543 for standing on the side of the road with a sign warning drivers that a photo radar truck was ahead.

“If you’re speeding and you get caught by radar, you deserve the ticket, simple as that,” Jack Shultz told the Edmonton Journal. “But it’s how it’s being done that offends me. You’re hiding behind a tree? Hiding isn’t stopping speed. If you want to stop the speeder, make yourself noticeable.”

Speed or greed?

We asked police in several cities how they decide where to put speed traps – and whether it’s motivated by money.

“Speed enforcement in Vancouver is done in high-risk areas, locations where we receive complaints about vehicles travelling too fast, and places where speed-related collisions occur more often,” said Sgt. Brian Montague, Vancouver police spokesman, in an e-mail. “Those who argue it is a cash grab – revenue from speeding tickets is collected by and goes to the province, not the Vancouver police department.”

In Toronto, police use multiple ways to decide where to enforce speed limits – including complaints, collision maps and computer analysis.

“The end result is – looking at any road, almost every vehicle breaks the law [and speeds] at some point during the day,” said Const. Clint Stibbe, with Toronto police traffic services, in an e-mail. “Speeding is the single most common charge the Toronto Police Service lays on a yearly basis.”

Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO) said there are “no [Highway Traffic Act] rules that set out where and when police can conduct enforcement work.”

“The ministry is not aware of any studies on the effectiveness of ‘speed traps’ though traditional police enforcement is an effective tool used to reduce speeding,” MTO spokesman Kwok Wong said in an e-mail.

Does speed kill?

Last year, a paper by the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy – which has previously argued that growing numbers of crashes caused by distracted driving show that distracted driving laws don’t make roads safer – argued that increased enforcement and lower speed limits don’t reduce accidents and are a cash grab.

“‘Speed kills’ is a slogan that has long been accepted rather uncritically outside of traffic engineering circles,” said researchers Hiroko Shimizu and Pierre Desrochers. “If this were the case, highways with the highest speed limits would have the worst fatality rates. This, however, is not so as was amply documented in the (extreme) case of the German Autobahn system.”

The U.S.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) challenged the Frontier study arguments and said evidence shows that speed does kill. From 1993-2013, a 5 mph (8 km/h) speed limit increase in 41 states led to an 8 per cent increase in fatalities on highways, the IIHS said.

“Engineering design, including separation of traffic, improved visibility, and the removal of roadside hazards will lower the risk of a crash,” the IIHS said. “However, all else being equal, increased speed has consistently been shown to lead to increased deaths. Even on the Autobahn, the introduction of speed limits led to declines in serious and fatal injuries.”

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