More cities are lowering traffic speed limits, but does it actually make roads safer?
TOM BABIN, CALGARY HERALD
More from Tom Babin, Calgary Herald –
Published on: July 10, 2014 – Last Updated: November 26, 2014 11:08 AM MST
After the 12-year-old boy in her neighbourhood was killed by a sport-utility vehicle, Jodi Morel started to do the math.
And tragic mathematics it was. As a member of the traffic committee in her Calgary neighbourhood of Mount Royal, Morel was called to the scene of the collision. She learned the driver was not speeding, but the vehicle was on a street with a 50 km/h speed limit and still had enough force to kill.
“A witness walked me through the scene,” she recalls about that tragic case. “My response was that ‘(The driver) must have been speeding.’ But it was completely legal. In this case, nobody did anything wrong.”
Later, Morel found research showing how deadly a vehicle becomes the faster it is moving, like in the chart below.
Being hit by a slower moving vehicle increases the chance of survival.
While as many as nine out of 10 pedestrians hit at 20 km/h will survive, for example, at 60 km/h — a speed Morel figures is close enough to the speed limit that few speeding tickets would be issued — as many as 90 per cent will die.
To Morel, this added up to a no-brainer conclusion. One that many jurisdictions around the world are also arriving at: If we want to save lives on city streets, lower speed limits. She subsequently started a campaign to do just that, called Slow Down YYC (on Twitter here)
Dale Calkins, a cycling advocate in Calgary, has similar ideas. He works with 30 For Sunnyside, a group urging 30 km/h speed limits in that community rather than the current default limit of 50 km/h because he think lower speeds is one way to make neighbourhood life safer for pedestrians and cyclists
“We are lacking a conversation on road safety,” he says. “There are a lot of things we should be talking about, and this is one of them.”
Many communities in Calgary struggle to control traffic speed
There are plenty of other people talking about the idea too. Many jurisdictions around the world are reducing speed limits in a bid to reduce the number of automobile deaths. New York City is in the midst of lowering its speed limit to 25 mph (40 km/h) from 30 mph. London drops to 20 mph (32 km/h) on July 20. San Francisco is looking at the same. Even Airdrie has a default speed limit of 30 km/h on residential roads. (Notwithstanding the B.C. government’s recent decision to raise speed limits on a few highways).
While the idea makes intuitive sense — slower-moving vehicles equate to less carnage on the human body — there’s the bigger question: Does it actually work? Do lower speeds make roads safer?
The answer seems to be a resounding yes, albeit with a few caveats. Dr. Don Voaklander, a professor in the school of public policy at the University of Alberta, says there are plenty of studies that show slower moving vehicles not only reduce fatalities, but result in fewer accidents as well. He cited one study that found every one per cent reduction in speed resulted in a two per cent reduction in traffic incidents.
“Reduced speeds not only reduce the severity of (collisions), slower speeds also mean drivers can brake and stop in shorter distances,” Voaklander said. “Speed does kill.”
Those caveats, however, are big ones. There’s no guarantee drivers will blindly obey reduced speed limits. Speeding is a problem today, even with a 50 km/h limit. So Voaklander says enforcement of those limits is key, especially on those wide suburban residential roads in which drivers feel safe going fast.
So if lower speed limits are such a no-brainer for safety (and a host of other reasons, from improved street life to reduced pollution), why isn’t it being done? In Calgary, there are jurisdictional considerations — a blanket change to default limits in Calgary would require a change by the provincial government — but reducing speed limits is rarely supported by drivers. Despite speed being cited as a problem in some polls by 70 to 80 per cent of community members, there’s a lack of both political and societal will to change them. Nobody, it seems, wants their commute slowed, and such debates tend to pit commuting voters against voters living in those communities being driven through.
A study in 2006 by the OECD into speed management suggested a reason for this is psychology of drivers. Basically, it said drivers rarely think of themselves as doing something risky, even when we’re aware of the dangers of driving. Here’s an excerpt from that report:
The benefits and disadvantages of lower speeds are not perceived in the same manner by individuals and by the community as a whole. The societal consequences of road accidents are well known, and excessive speed is a major contributing factor. However, for an individual driver, the risk of being involved in an accident is relatively small and the driver therefore rarely experiences the worst safety consequences of excessive speed. The more journeys a driver completes successfully at a higher speed, the more the notion that high speeds are safe is reinforced….This contradiction between societal and individual consequences makes it a challenge to create sound speed management.
Voaklander had a more simple reason for the rejection of the idea: “Everybody thinks they’re a great driver,” he says. “We have a sense that we’re in this contained, safe (state). That we’re omnipotent”
So how is that sentiment combated? Voaklander says just as important as enforcement is education about the dangers of speeding and the benefits of the reductions. It can be a slow process, but it may be the only solution.
Few people think reduced speed limits are a panacea. But paired with education, traffic calming initiatives and enforcement, they can help make roads safer. Public sentiment seems to be swinging in that direction. Voaklander pointed to a recent plebiscite in Morinville, north of Edmonton, in which residents voted to keep photo radar because of concerns about safety, a result he wouldn’t have expected in the past, when we were more blase about traffic injuries.
Jodi Morel, for one, vows to keep raising the issue in memory of the boy killed in her neighbourhood.
“I find it surprising that people don’t understand this idea. The amount of time (a driver would save with a higher speed limit) isn’t worth the safety of somebody else,” she says. “I think if they understand that people could get killed, they might change their mind.”