Opinion: Hitting the speed limit

A couple of years ago, I was caught speeding in Austria by a police camera on the Autobahn, and was sent a ticket in the mail. The speed limit had been 100 km/h and I was ticketed at 106. The total cost, once it was converted to euros and wired to the correct bank in Europe, was about $70.

This seemed ironic, since the day before I’d been driving quite legally on a similar stretch of road in Germany at 260 km/h, but no matter. “You were lucky you weren’t caught in Switzerland,” said some European friends. “The fine would have been several hundred euros for just two or three km/h over.”

This concept of the speed limit actually being the limit was totally alien to me. Where’s the fairness? Where’s the sport? What about the decency of understanding that my speedometer may be poorly calibrated and I’m completely innocent of all intention to speed? Where’s the wiggle room?

But in Europe, increasingly, the law is the law. Don’t want a speeding ticket? It’s simple – don’t go over the limit. Stay below and you’ll be fine, but if you want to drive on the edge of the limit, don’t expect sympathy when you go over the line.

In much of Europe, speed limits are taken very seriously and the limit is the limit.

(Some countries there, of course, are notoriously lax with speed penalties, but it all depends on the region and the circumstances. Italy is relaxed, France is not; Spanish cops on the mainland are usually chill, but on the islands in the Mediterranean, it’s a whole different matter.)

In the United States, the unofficial rule is generally 10 per cent over, plus 1 mph. Many interstates now have a 70 mph limit, especially west of the Mississippi, and the state trooper’s mantra of “Eight is great, nine you’re mine,” generally holds true.

Many American states have higher speed limits than most of Canada, like here in Montana.

In Canada, however, it’s a different matter.

Ontario’s unofficial law is pretty clear cut that you can usually drive at 20 per cent over, whatever the limit. On Highway 401, which has a speed limit of 100 km/h, you can drive up to 120 km/h and you almost certainly won’t get a ticket unless there’s a cop having a very bad day. Almost everyone drives at 115-120 km/h and will set their cruise controls to not go over. You’re probably okay at 125, but you’ll probably get a ticket at 130.

But when you think about it, why should this be the case? Why shouldn’t the limit be the limit? It’s because pretty much everyone knows that the 400-series highways were designed to be driven at 115 km/h, and all but the most pious Prius owners feel comfortable at that speed.

Ontario’s Minister of Transportation Jeff Yurek, here with Sarnia-Lambton MPP Bob Bailey, announced a move to higher speed limits this month. Photo courtesy CBC.

Now Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford, who gave turbaned Sikhs the right to not wear a helmet, and is about to allow motorcyclists to finally ride one-up in the HOV lanes, will run a trial this September to raise the speed limits to 110 km/h on some of the 400-series highways. I predict this will have no effect on real speeds whatsoever. It’s possible that people will still drive at 20 per cent over, raising those actual speeds to closer to 130, but probably not. The posted speed limit is irrelevant to most of us – it all depends on the speeds at which cops will write tickets.

For years now, advocacy groups like Stop 100 have been calling for an increase to 120 km/h, and for government to stop making law-breakers out of the majority of responsible drivers by posting artificially low limits. After all, a divided highway is safest when everyone is travelling at roughly the same speed – it’s the very fast and very slow drivers who are the most dangerous, creating impact differences of 40 km/h or more.

British Columbia’s speed limits are the highest in the country, though some have now been decreased.

However, when BC raised many of its divided highway speed limits to 120 km/h a few years ago, it found not all roads were suited to the faster pace and crashes increased, so it has since lowered the speeds on more than 500 km of highway by 10 km/h to reflect this. Ford is taking a more cautious approach. He’s raising to only 110 km/h to see what the real-time effect will be, and only on three stretches of highway, with a fourth being considered in the north. It shows willing, and this is a two-year trial, comfortably timed for the next election.

It’s not a solution, though. We all know the real solution, which is exactly what they’ve done in Europe: Raise the limit on most 80 km/h and 100 km/h roads by an additional 20 km/h, which is the speed that drivers find comfortable, and then install speed cameras to make up for the shortfall of police, who have better things to do. Make sure the cameras are well signed, since they should be a deterrent, not a revenue earner, and place them only where that speed is actually warranted. It’s simple, it’s cheap, it’s effective, and it’s obvious.

(If you want to get really I Robot and still keep the voters happy, then drivers who have been properly trained and qualified should be given a transponder to allow them to driver faster past the cameras. Maybe even dedicated highway lanes, too. I’m sure the technology exists, and I’ll be first in line to apply for it, even if the transponder must be injected into my skull.)

In the meantime, I can’t believe I’ve written this, because I like riding quickly while safely, probably more than most. Please don’t share this column with anyone in government who might actually be a decision-maker. Sometimes, what’s best for us all can be really hard to accept.

4 thoughts on “Opinion: Hitting the speed limit”

  1. The accident, injury and fatality problem on Ontario roads is not just a “how fast” problem on divided highways, but a case of bad driving habits on all roads. Bad habits such as intoxication with alcohol and now drugs, using the cell phone while driving, “asleep at the wheel” (fatigued driving), failing to stop at red lights or stop signs, lousy left turn tactics, and so on. Speed comes into it when the old, but valid, rule is ignored. “Be able to stop on your own side of the road within the distance you can see ahead to be clear.”

  2. Motorists will drive to the design speed of the road; when the speed limit on I95 in Maine was raised to 75 from 65, the average speed of traffic only went up by 2 mph. I suspect that if the limit was raised by another 10 mph, average speeds wouldn’t go up a corresponding amount. Speed doesn’t necessarily kill, but it almost always costs…

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