In mid-December, Transportation Minister Todd Stone directed ICBC to commission a third-party review to determine how to keep vehicle insurance rates from continuing to soar in this province.
If public input is requested as part of a review, this is what I will suggest: Get rid of the 120 km/h speed limits slapped onto some stretches of B.C. highway two and a half years ago. In my experience, driving everywhere has become more dangerous since the provincial government implemented its “faster is better” program in 2014.
With an aging mother living in Courtenay on Vancouver Island, I drive up there from Salt Spring Island every three or four weeks to visit and help with chores.
I used to enjoy the journey, often made on my own. It was a rare chunk of down time for me spent on a road I am comfortably familiar with.
But ever since the speed limit just south of Parksville on the Inland Island Highway was increased in the summer of 2014 from 110 to 120 km/hr, I pretty much dread it.
Prior to the change, most people drove between 110 and 115 km/h, a few below that mark, and most of the rest at 120. Just a handful of rocket-ship drivers would be encountered in the two-hour trek from Crofton to Courtenay.
Now the regular range is from 110 to 135 km/hr, which makes for a radically different and unnerving driving experience.
While travelling at a sane 115 km/h in the right-hand lane and encountering a 110 km/h driver, it’s no longer a matter of maintaining the 115 km/h level and passing the slower vehicle in a relaxed manner. Now there’s a good chance that a vehicle travelling at 130 km/h or more is not too far behind the 110/115 duo, and its driver is not inclined to ease up on the gas pedal just a wee bit to let anyone else use the passing lane for a few minutes. Ironically, having vehicles travel at much different speeds on the same stretch of road is exactly what the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said it wanted to change by raising the speed limit closer to what people actually drive on some rural highways.
Here’s an excerpt from the Rural Highway Safety and Speed Review report of July 2014 (page 9) where the rationale for speed limit increases in 33 stretches of B.C. highway totalling 1,300 kms was laid out:
“Because drivers choose different speeds, a range of operating speeds results. Where drivers are unsure of an appropriate speed, large speed variations or ‘speed differentials’ can develop. This in turn results in less consistent traffic flow, increased driver uncertainty and/or frustration and increased crash risk. Speed limits should be set so that they include the behaviour of the majority of drivers and provide an appropriate maximum speed.”
I have to tell transportation ministry personnel that the speed limit increases have in fact radically hiked the “speed differentials” they were hoping to reduce.
While the following from the Canada Safety Council is dated, it’s hard to argue with the common sense and nod to physics it contains:
“Speeding increases the likelihood and severity of a crash. The faster a vehicle is moving, the less time the driver has to react to a hazard, and for other road users to react to that vehicle. A speeding vehicle requires more time and distance to stop, and is harder to control.
And here’s some chilling data for you:
“As speed increases over 100 km/h, the fatality rate of vehicle occupants goes up exponentially. For example, the chances of being killed in a vehicle travelling at 120 km/h are four times higher than at 100 km/h.”
Never mind that the amount of time saved by driving 10 km/h faster is negligible, or that fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are unnecessarily boosted, or that maintaining a 120 km/h (or 75 mph) speed is not always comfortable.
Why were some speed limits raised in 2014 when intuitively it seems like an idiotic thing to do if you want to reduce crashes and injuries?
Let’s hope it wasn’t due to the “public consultation” part of the transportation ministry’s Rural Highway Safety and Speed Review, which ran for two months beginning Nov. 29, 2013. Opinions were requested about a range of traffic experience issues, from speed limits to wildlife hazards to slow-moving vehicles and use of winter tires.
Perhaps the ministry was swayed by those responding to survey questions about whether or not speed limits should increase, stay the same or be decreased in specific areas. For the Nanaimo to Campbell River stretch I am talking about, for example, 57 per cent of a whopping 198 people (or 113 of them) said the speed limits should increase.
Sadly, the ministry wasn’t swayed by people and organizations with real expertise in the subject of road safety. The RCMP, B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, the BC Ministry of Justice’s Road Safety Unit, Office of the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles, BCAA and the B.C. Trucking Association, among others, all opposed speed limit increases, as outlined in the consultation and engagement summary (pages 27-33).
As expected, once the controversial changes were made, they needed to be justified. That resulted in a classic government dog-and-pony show on June 28, 2016, with transportation minister Stone declaring that ministry studies had determined the speed-limit increases were benign or even a boon to safety.
Stone advised in a press release that ministry engineers “found that on 19 of 33 segments of highways, the crash rate either fell or remained unchanged.” The Rural Highway Safety and Speed Review Post Implementation Update outlined how crash data from Nov. 1, 2014 to Oct. 31, 2015 was compared with data from the previous three years in drawing its conclusions.
However, a third-party UBC study by Tarek Sayed and Emanuele Sacchi comparing the changed segments using a different technique “showed a statistically significant increase of crash frequency of 11.1 per cent” in a 12-month period. They recommended further analysis be done when more data was available.
To its credit, the transportation ministry promised safety enhancements for the 14 areas where the crash rate rose following speed limit increases, and said it would drop the limit in two of those 14 sections.
It also undertook some pretty minimal vehicle speed surveying and then declared that people weren’t really driving much faster, if at all, than they used to in those 33 areas. But something I’ve noticed on the race track between Crofton and Courtenay since the speed limit has increased is that people drive faster everywhere else. It’s most noticeable on the Nanaimo Parkway portion of Highway 19, where the speed limit has been 90 km/h for years, but now the average speed is generally 105.
We’ve all been given a giant green light to drive as fast as we think we can, knowing that the chance of being fined for speeding is near zero, and we’re making the most of it.
ICBC, which lists speed as the top contributing factor in crash deaths on B.C. roads from 2010 through 2014, should perhaps be considered the real authority on this subject.
In August of this year, ICBC president and CEO Mark Blucher reported that vehicle crashes across B.C. had risen 15 per cent between 2013 and 2015, and warned that insurance rates would continue to rise in the near future as a result.
Clearly, accident rates in this province are up, and we’re all paying for it with injuries, trauma, lives lost and higher insurance fees.
The third-party review requested by the provincial government in December is welcome news, but it may or may not result in a recommendation about speed limits and enforcement.
We have a provincial election coming up in May. While there will be no shortage of controversial topics vying for candidates’ attention, I hope speed and road safety are two that will be rushed to the front of the line.
The writer is editor of the Salt Spring Island-based Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper and other Driftwood Gulf Islands Media publications.