I don’t have any particular animosity towards the movers and the shakers of this world. I come from a long line of them. I have worked two jobs most of my life, and since retiring from real work, I still have a couple going besides my writing career. And I’m the lazy one in my family.
However, you have to admit that the urge to get somewhere, anywhere, no matter where as long as you’re moving has led to a certain element of helter-skelter in our lives. And setting high speed limits is one place where the “faster is better” crowd are at their worst.
It is fortunate for us humans that we have an inborn sense of self-preservation that kicks in when we need it. Usually. When it comes to speed limits, we all have natural ones. The first one is about 5 km/h. Walking speed. We can handle that. The next one is somewhere around 50 km/h. Our top running speed aided by our machinery, and that’s the speed most of us are happy to travel in close quarters with other cars.
My experience on autobahns and autoroutes is that the next level is about 110-120 km/hr. Many roads in Europe have a maximum speed of 130, but I note that only a few vehicles travel that fast. I don’t. Even in a relatively large car, it just feels too fast for me.
Instinct Becomes Indistinct
Because the capabilities of the car, both perceived and actual, throw our instincts off. That is a real element in the safety of any given driving speed, both in a positive and negative way. On the plus side, the ability of your vehicle to stop quickly is crucial. If you’re driving a new car with four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and high quality radial tires, you can be far safer at a much faster speed than a loaded semi with retread tires. On the other hand, if you’re riding in a Mercedes with Airmatic suspension and effective sound damping, you exist in a fool’s paradise that insulates you from your own sense of danger. When you combine that with the sense of entitlement often felt by those who own such a machine, you have someone with little connection to the real world, travelling at high speed.
And don’t use the speed limitless German Autobahns as a safety example. Yes, they have a very low accident rate. But that’s because they are beautifully engineered roads. When a section of the Autobahn was put under a 130km/h limit, it lowered the deaths and serious injuries by 30%.
How To Choose Limits?
So, because of these subjective factors in driving, we have to set limits. Because we are a democratic society, they must be the same for all people. So how do we choose the limits?
Well, one way is by trial and error. In this day of multitudinous data collection, government officials have all sorts of data as to which speeds cause the most accidents on which roads, and adjust the limits accordingly. So how do speed limits get set so high?
Figure That Again…?
One of the criteria for speed limits is to set them so that 85% of drivers don’t want to exceed them. This is complicated by the fact that a huge number of drivers regularly go 10% over the speed limit, and most traffic officers allow it. So if the bureaucrats want the real speed limited aimed at that 85%, they need to set the posted rate at 10% slower than what they know most people want to drive. In other words, if most people want to drive 100, you set the limit at 90, and all will be well. But 15% of drivers beg to differ.
Relative Speed – Bah, Humbug!
The biggest argument for raising speed limits concerns the fact that if everyone is driving at about the same speed, there will be fewer accidents. Sounds like a no-brainer. But wait a minute. How do you make that work? If the speed limit is too low, then more fast drivers are driving above the rest of the traffic. If the speed limit is too high, then more slow drivers are driving below the speed of the rest of us. Which accident would you rather be involved in, the high speed or the low speed? The usual argument for raising the speed limit is that the main cause of accidents is the frustration of the fast drivers. In other words, the instant-gratification set want the rules changed in their favour, in spite of the fact that it will kill more people.
A Real Example
The speed limit on most B. C. highways is 90 km/h (60 mph for you 20th-Century folk). In 2014 the B. C. Highways Ministry raised the speed limits on 33 stretches covering 1300 km of highway. Some went from 90 to 100, others from 100 to 110. Some little-used freeways even went from 110 to 120. Then they collected accident data for those stretches. Guess what? Yep. The rate of crashes went up 11% on almost half of them.
But, if you read all the articles, they discuss only the lack of harm done by raising the speed limit. Not one of them mentions anything about there being any benefit. Sort of a “Look ma, I’m riding my bike with no hands and I didn’t hurt myself yet,” approach.
In a recent trip to the interior of B. C. I took a look at the new speed limits, and in places they were, frankly, dangerous. There were several stretches in the Fraser Canyon, a route renowned for its hazards, where the limit was 100 km/h on a curvy road with poor visibility. Keeping in mind the “10% over the limit” rule, traffic was expected to be going 110. There were places where I felt distinctly uncomfortable even at 100. And I drive a relatively new car with 4-wheel disc brakes, new tires, etc. etc.
So why are we raising the limits? Politics as usual. Right-leaning politicians want government to have less control over people’s right to do what their impulses tell them. The movers and shakers of the world want to rush ahead at their own, self-set speed. And the rest of us have a small voice inside that says, “It won’t be me that has an accident, and I’m really in a hurry.”
The Bottom Line
The vast majority of research shows that higher speed limits cause more accidents, more deaths and exponentially high fuel consumption. Remember, he who tells you what you want to hear is telling you what he wants you to hear. The guy who is telling us to raise the limits is in the 15% who like to drive faster than is safe and he doesn’t give a damn about the law, either. Listening to him is sort of like voting for Donald Trump or eating a Double Mr. Fatburger. The child in you wants to do it, but the adult you are knows how stupid it would be.