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#297 Let’s Get Up to Speed

Despite higher posted speed limits (or even none) much of Europe actually enjoys safer driving conditions than Canada with fewer per capita fatalities.

I’m riding along what could be (but definitely isn’t) BC’s Sea-to-Sky Highway 99 between West Vancouver and Lion’s Bay. It’s a similarly broad four-lane highway with no intersections and generously wide hard shoulders. I’m riding at the local speed limit—but if I got caught at the same speed on the 99, my bike would be impounded and towed at my cost. I’d be subject to a fine, increased insurance premiums and something ominously called “administrative sanctions.” Justice would be summarily dispensed at the side of the road, and I would have no right of appeal, except to request a review by the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles, who is neither a judge nor necessarily has any formal legal training. But as it happens, I’m doing a perfectly legal 130 kmh on the newly commissioned A1 highway around Dera in central Romania. And I could be almost anywhere in Europe. Most of Europe’s major highways are signed at 130 kmh, while Germany’s autobahns famously eschew any limit at all.
As we’ve been told ad nauseam, speed is a major factor in road fatalities in Canada. So given the higher speed limits, there’ll be total carnage on Europe’s highways, right? Well, no. In three weeks of riding in Europe this summer, I saw just one minor collision: on a narrow two-lane road in Romania, two cars engaged in over-ambitious passing maneuvers had swiped off each others’ driving mirrors.
Yet in spite of Canada’s conservative speed limits, we fare no better than most countries in road deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, with 9.2 per annum. We lag well behind the UK (2.75), autobahn-speed-limit-free Germany (6.7), and almost all other European countries including Norway, Ireland, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, France and Croatia. Even hard-driving, machismo-fueled Italy delivers a similar score to Canada, while Australia and New Zealand, Japan and China leave us in their dust.
So how does Europe, with its 130 kmh drivers (many of whom are doing way more than that) get away with it? Could it be that lower speed limits aren’t the answer? Maybe we should look instead at some of the innovative ideas coming out of Europe.
Intersection speed limits. Where do most crashes happen? At intersections. Throughout continental Europe, speed limits are lower on the approach to intersections than they are on the open road. Reducing traffic speeds near intersections makes far more sense than a blanket limit for the whole road.
Speed cameras. I’m not talking about BC’s now-extinct mobile photo-radar vans: in many European countries, there are permanent speed cameras at collision black spots, near intersections, around schools and in residential areas. These are well signed, so you slow down for them. Doesn’t that make more sense than our present method of “speed control” in which cops with radar guns hide in bushes beside roads where the speed limit is unrealistically low? And why do you only see them out on sunny days?
Roundabouts. The majority of “intersections” in Europe are roundabouts or traffic circles. They’ve been proven to speed up traffic flows and reduce serious injury, mainly because head-on collisions are virtually eliminated. More in Canada, please.
Variable speed limits. Many European countries employ interactive electronic speed control signage: the limit can be changed to reflect current traffic and/or road conditions, like congestion, fog, or slippery sections.
A visible police presence. At the roadside in almost every small Romanian town, a uniformed traffic cop stands by his car, making sure speeders slow down. That’s enforcement, not entrapment. What most law-abiding citizens want from their police force is a visible presence to deter scofflaws and criminals. What do we get instead? Ghost cars…
Realistic speed limits. It’s well documented that, for optimum safety, speed limits should be set at a speed where drivers are engaged in what they should be doing—driving—rather than under-occupied. Too slow speed limits lead to driver distraction—the number one cause of crashes. And if everyone ignores the speed limit anyway, isn’t it too low? If I were to ride the Sea-to-Sky at the 80 kmh limit, not only would I cause cars to brake and swerve to change lanes around me, but I’d pretty quickly become a speed bump. The limit is posted at 80, but the median driving speed is around 105 kmh.
BC is proud of its improved safety record on the Sea-to-Sky highway since it was twinned, widened and re-engineered for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Therefore—try to follow my logic here—if the road is considered safe, but the majority of drivers travel at 25 kmh over the existing limit, then shouldn’t the limit be 25 kmh higher?
As it happens, BC is finally proposing a review of speed limits on its major rural highways, the results of which will be posted in 2014. But given how popular it is with local motorcyclists, something tells me the Sea-to-Sky won’t be up for consideration.

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