As I was making the drive to and from Calgary on the weekend I had time to think about an unexpected provincial government announcement here in B.C. last week. Highway speed limits are being increased on various highway sections around the province to as high as 120 kilometres an hour. (Story at bclocalnews.com.)
When the news came out last week my first reaction was, “What, the death rate has dropped too low? Not enough people are dying on our highways anymore?”
An increase seems like it is in sharp contrast to the 1970s, when across North America speed limits were actually decreased, ostensibly to lower the rate of fuel consumption.
On the drive to and from Alberta, however, my awareness caused me to notice that on a number of sections the speed limit does not reflect the actual speed that most drivers choose. In good road conditions on Highway 22 (my favourite drive of all, with few curves necessitating a slowdown, foothills providing gentle rises and drops in elevation and the Rockies to the west providing a spectacular visual backdrop), I typically set my cruise control to about 110 km/h, or 10 per cent above the posted limit. Between Highway 3 and Longview, about a one-hour trip, I will pass only a handful of vehicles, but will be passed many, many times.
And the latter observation is exactly why transport minister Todd Stone says B.C. is increasing limits. Studies of current limits show that most drivers tend to speed when they feel they can do so safely.
“The majority of the recommended increases are limited to an additional 10 kilometres per hour, which will bring the speed limit in line with actual travel speeds,” he told the Vancouver Sun last week.
And actual travel speeds should determine speed limits. In Europe, higher legal speed limits have been the norm for many years, and a much greater emphasis was placed on engineering vehicles to handle those speeds. Technology, from what I have read, has improved greatly in North American vehicles, and it can be attributed to the drop in death rates on highways. Quite simply, vehicles are capable of performing better than we have been giving them credit for.
There were other things I made mental note of on my weekend drive. There are drivers who don’t care what the speed limit is — they likely set their own limit of perhaps 20 kilometres over the posted ones, and drive at it, passing others with enthusiasm that isn’t dampened by things like solid lines. These drivers like the higher speeds and enjoy passing other vehicles. Aside from the occasional close call with oncoming traffic, they really don’t cause a lot of problems, unless you happen to find being passed annoying.
Other drivers, for reasons unknown, seem completely unable to hold their straightaway speeds on even gentle curves. They will tool along at or above the speed limit, then automatically slow down on a curve. This is particularly noticeable in high volume areas like Deerfoot Trail in Calgary. Nowhere on that road is it actually necessary to slow on curves in good road and weather conditions, but the traffic flow slows and congests on most curves. I have no explanation for this.
Quite dangerous, in my opinion, are not the speeders, but the dawdlers, like the motorhome I encountered driving west between Sparwood and Fernie on Sunday. The driver was unwilling or unable to get his house on wheels much above 80 km/h, 20 kilometres below the posted limit. Not surprisingly, a large parade formed behind him because passing was pretty much impossible with the steady flow of oncoming traffic consisting primarily of Albertans headed back home after a weekend away.
But my most dangerous driver vote is a tie between the one who stays on the inside lane on four-lane highways and passing zones, and the one who speeds up on straight stretches and passing lanes. In the former, vehicles are forced to pass on the right, which is not a safe practice. We are safest when all passing is done on the left. In the latter, frustrated drivers have to go excessively fast if they want to clear the bonehead who dawdles between straight sections.
As I explored the list of highway speed increases for B.C., most of them made sense to me. Legislating all drivers to keep right except when passing, and enforcing the law would be a good next step.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.