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Emile Therien is past president of the Canada Safety Council

Canadians concerned with road safety should be shocked that British Columbia will increase speed limits to 120 km/h on some highways. This decision begs scrutiny and flies in the face of public health, injury prevention and common sense. A recent survey in Ontario revealed that many Ontarians also favor raising speed limits to 120 km/h on some highways.

Fast driving is a serious public safety problem. Speeding increases the likelihood and severity of a crash; the laws of physics are not very forgiving to the speeding driver. The faster a vehicle is moving, the less time the driver has to react to a hazard and for other user of the road to react to that vehicle. Speed is a factor in more than 20 per cent of fatal crashes and 12 per cent of all crashes. As speed increases over 100 km/h, the fatality rate of vehicle occupants goes up dramatically. For example, the chances of being killed in a vehicle traveling at 120 km/h are four times higher than at 100 km/h.

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Speed of impact is also critical for pedestrians, the most vulnerable road users. A 1995 European Transport Safety Council report found that only 5 per cent of pedestrians died when struck by a vehicle at 32 km/h; fatalities increased to 85 per cent at 64 km/h.

In Canada, speeding has become widely accepted by the country's drivers. 'Everybody does it' is a common excuse for breaking the speed limit. The speeding problem is not limited to youth terrorizing city streets. Advertising that glamorizes excessive speeding promote unacceptable driver attitudes and behaviours. High performance, more often than not, is the mantra of today's automotive manufacturers.

There has been a continuing debate in Canada about raising speed limits on major highways for years. Advocates of higher limits need only look across the border for proof that raising speed limits is a bad idea. The record is clear: As U.S. speed limits have risen, statistics show an associated increase in lives lost. The Canada Safety Council and other safety advocates seriously question, in light of the experience of our southern neighbors, why any jurisdiction in this country would chose to follow this lead.

The internationally acclaimed U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has been tracking vehicle speeds on rural and urban interstates since 1987. According to the Institute, most U.S states raised speed limits in response to the 1995 abolishment of the national maximum speed limit. Almost immediately, the higher limits were associated with increases in travel speeds. Within one year after speed limits were raised from 55 to 70 mph (112km/h) on three urban freeways in Texas, the percentage of passenger vehicles traveling faster than 70 mph increased from 15 to 50 per cent; the per cent exceeding 75 mph (120 km/h) increased from 4 to 17 per cent. Ten years after speed limits were raised from 65 to 75 mph on rural interstates, the proportion of passenger vehicles exceeding 80 mph tripled in Nevada and nearly tripled in New Mexico. By comparison, declines in travel speeds were observed on urban freeways in California and Nevada where speed limits did not change and where there were large increases in traffic volume and development of surrounding areas.

In 2006 Texas raised the daytime speed limit for passenger vehicles on segments of highways 1-10 and I-20 from 75 to 80 mph. During the 16-month period following the speed limit increase, mean speeds of passenger vehicles on I-20 increased by 9 mph relative to the comparison road, where no speed limit change occurred and traffic speeds declined. On I-10 mean speeds increased by 4 mph relative to the comparison road.

In 2007 the Institute monitored travel speeds on interstates in eight metropolitan areas. On urban interstates in all eight metro areas, the average speed of passenger vehicles exceeded the limits. On suburban and rural interstates, average speeds were faster than the limits in half of the metro areas.

Institute studies show that deaths on rural interstates increased by 25-30 per cent when states began increasing speed limits from 55 to 65 mph in 1987. In 1989, about two-thirds of this increase – 19 per cent, or 400 deaths – was attributed to increased speed and the rest to increased travel.

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There is a proven way to deter speeders: Enforce the speed limit. When drivers know they will be caught and penalized, they slow down. The perception of apprehension is a proven and effective deterrent. There's no substitute for strong police visibility in problem areas, but the police can't be everywhere. For obvious safety reasons they are reluctant to pursue speeding drivers on high-volume roads. Photo-radar is a solution to the problem. However, all the traffic safety countermeasures in the world, combined with visible enforcement, in and by themselves, will not fully prevail in the fight against "speeding, dangerous, irresponsible drivers."

A nation-wide movement against these "lawless" drivers must take hold that somewhat resembles the way public sentiment once moved against drunk driving. Simply put, Canadians, as the statistics indicate, have made drunk driving socially unacceptable. Getting caught now means alienating your family, your friends and possibly losing your job. Progress in the three-decades-long fight against impaired driving, according to the Canada Safety Council, is attributable to several factors: strong commitment from all stakeholders; changes in attitudes and behaviours; effective public awareness programs; tough laws and enforcement.

How long it takes to bring about a nation-wide movement that demonizes and makes lawless driving socially unacceptable is anyone's guess. Let's make sure it doesn't take 30 years.

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