Traffic was moving fast on the 401 this morning, close to 140 km/h for the quicker cars in the two left lanes. It’s not usually this fast on the stretches I drive east of Toronto, but on a cottage weekend, people are in a hurry to leave the city.
There was a police cruiser on a ramp near Bowmanville, Ont., and word must have gotten out – maybe through Waze, or just old-fashioned headlight flashing – and the traffic slowed to pass at 110 km/h or so before speeding up again beyond the next rise. That was a guaranteed safe speed to avoid a ticket.
This is life on Canadian highways in 2019. In Ontario, the speed limit is 100 km/h, but the de facto “accepted” limit is 120 km/h, which is what most people drive. It’s understood among the regulars, which includes myself, that any cop will have to be in a really bad mood to give you a ticket for driving below 120 km/h.
There’s more, all at the discretion of the police: If you drive at 125 km/h and hit the brakes when you see a cruiser, the officer will appreciate that you respect the power of the badge and so will probably leave you alone. If you drive at 130 km/h in traffic that’s at the same speed, you’ll probably be okay, especially if your vehicle doesn’t stand out for being overly fancy, or decrepit. More than 130 km/h and you’ll probably be pulled over if you’re faster than other traffic, although the ticket will probably be reduced to no demerit points if you’re helpful and polite.
That’s just the reality of the situation. Lots of “probablys” in there. This is why Ontario’s two-year trial to increase speed limits to 110 km/h on three provincial highways, which begins sometime this month, is basically irrelevant. Everyone’s speeding already – nothing will change.
Literally, speeds won’t change. On a divided highway that has no stop signs or side roads to slow for, people will drive the speed at which they are most comfortable. When Ontario’s 400-series highways were first built in the 1950s and sixties, they were designed for a speed of at least 112 km/h, and since then, vehicles have developed into much more efficient machines that are comfortable at 120 km/h or so.
That’s the speed that’s safe, and 85 per cent of drivers don’t usually exceed it, which is why the police don’t write tickets for slower speeds.
The worry is that when the Ontario limit gets bumped up to 110 km/h, the de facto limit will become 130 km/h, as drivers add that 20 extra to the speed and assume the police will have the same acceptance. It probably won’t happen, though. A 1997 study by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration that compared speeds at test sites in 22 states, where the limits were raised or lowered by as much as 32 km/h, showed very little change in driver’s actual speeds.
As the report stated, “A review of the before and after speed data at each site revealed that differences in mean speeds, standard deviations of speeds, 85th percentile speeds, and other percentile speeds were generally less than 2 mph and were not related to the amount the posted speed limit was changed.”
On a divided highway, where all traffic is driving in the same direction, it’s not so much the speed of the traffic that causes collisions, but the difference in speed: One driver flying through at 20 km/h or more above the speed of the general traffic is a danger to everyone. And there will always be speeders – people with fast vehicles, lead feet or inflated opinions of their ability.
So, what is the solution? It’s easy – the Europeans have already figured it out.
First, determine a realistic and acceptable speed limit. For most divided highways in Canada, that’s 120 km/h.
Second, enforce it, with cruisers or cameras.
And that’s it. No leniency. No acceptance that your speedometer might be inaccurate – old ones were, but not today’s – and no forgiveness for ignorance. This is the limit and it’s reasonable, efficient and swift. Don’t exceed it.
That’s how I got a ticket last year in Austria, where I paid 70 euros for driving at 106 km/h on a 100 km/h stretch of motorway. People told me I was lucky: I’d have paid three times as much for the same offence just across the border in Switzerland.
In Britain, which has more traffic-speed cameras than most jurisdictions, limits are very strictly enforced and traffic speed is considerably more uniform on major highways than in the past. But in Britain, speeds are generally higher: 100 km/h on main roads and 112 km/h on the motorways.
Strict enforcement will never work when the limits themselves are unrealistic. But make them fair, and enforce them irrespective of the police officer’s mood that day, and then we’ll finally see real and effective change.
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