In B.C., the speed limits are rising on about 1,300 kilometres of highway this summer — in a few cases up to 120 km/h.

Quebec is exploring the idea of variable speed limits — as high as 120 but only when the weather's good — as part of a pilot project on two highways this fall.

Speed limits sign

Speed limits are rising to 120 km/h on sections of three multi-lane highways in B.C. (B.C. Government)

Not to be overtaken, some Ontario motorists have mounted a campaign that would allow vehicles to be able to roll along at up to 130 km/h on some of the province's better highways.

So far there is no interest from the provincial Ministry of Transportation in seeing that happen, and in fact some provinces are even trying to slow things down.

Drivers on busy stretches of highway outside Regina and Saskatoon are having to take their feet off the accelerator after the limit was dropped to 90 km/h from 110 km/h earlier this year.

Across Canada, motorists can be forgiven for being confused: a speed that's deemed to be just fine on a nice, four- or six-lane straightaway in one province could result in fines or demerit points in others.

But determining the prime speed, the one ultimately deemed best both for safety and for getting drivers where they want to go in the most timely fashion, isn't easy. It involves a complex equation of engineering, road safety concerns and politics.

Caught in the middle

"It's a tough one for provincial governments because, politically, talking about higher limits on highways will always be more popular than talking about lowering limits, and yet the science might suggest otherwise," says Ian Jack, managing director of communications and government relations for the Canadian Automobile Association.

Maximum speed limits

Maximum speed limits on various stretches of provincial highway across Canada range from 90 km/h in Prince Edward Island to 120 km/h in British Columbia. (Richard Grasley, Tara Kimura/CBC)

As a result, politicians can feel caught in the middle, and that might explain the interest in trying something like Quebec's pilot project, he says.

"I'm almost certain that the advice from bureaucrats in almost any jurisdiction would be that raising limits might not be the best idea. But then on the political level you've got to get re-elected and you've got to deal with voters, so there's that reality as well."

In Ontario, the limit for multi-lane, 400-series highways is 100 km/h, a speed one online campaign wants to see rise to 130 in rural areas, and 120 in many areas around some of the big cities.

Chris Klimek, founder of Stop100.ca, says the group has a simple goal that would bring Ontario roads in line with roads in many other jurisdictions in the U.S. and Europe.

"Our mission is basically to legalize the existing speeds, the existing practices on our roads," he says.

"Most countries are posting between 120, 130 kilometres an hour and this is exactly the sort of speeds we are driving here in Ontario when the traffic is flowing and it's uncongested.

"So we want to legalize the actions of a safe and prudent majority of drivers."

Not the autobahn

Klimek has a long list of numbers and arguments, including provincial figures that he says show how speed contributed to only 6.7 per cent of deaths on Ontario roads in 2009.

He also has comments from other jurisdictions such as Utah where speed limits were increased in test zones without an increase in the rate of fatalities.

And he rejects any suggestion that a higher limit might mean drivers would just go another 10 or 20 km/h above than that.

'Very few people have a desire to do 160, 170, so we don't have to be calling for the autobahn.'- Chris Klimek

"People are simply sticking to what feels comfortable and safe for them.

"Nobody has a death wish. People still want to get home or to their vacation location."

Klimek says that advocating for 130 in some areas is not suggesting Ontario highways should rival Germany's famed autobahn, which has sections where drivers can drive as fast as they wish.

"Very few people have a desire to do 160, 170, so we don't have to be calling for the autobahn," says Klimek.

On that, at least, he is in sync with the provincial government. Those who set the limits in Ontario have no plans to change them.

Speed limits are reviewed by the Ministry of Transportation every three to five years, and after the last review in 2012 a decision was made to leave them as they are.

"Experience in other jurisdictions indicates that fatal collisions can increase with higher limits," Bob Nichols, senior media liaison officer for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, said in an email.

"Even with today's posted speed limits, speed continues to be a major factor in collisions, injuries and fatalities on Ontario roads," he said.

"In 2011, speed contributed to 16 per cent of all fatalities and just under 10 per cent of all injuries due to motor vehicle collisions in Ontario."

Speed and distraction

In 2007, Ontario introduced a seven-day licence suspension and seven-day vehicle impounding for excessive speeding and aggressive driving, including following too closely, driving 50 km/h or more above the posted limit and weaving in and out of traffic too closely.

A study by Western University in London, Ont., along with the MTO earlier this year found that there have been about 58 fewer speed-related deaths or injuries a month for males between 16 and 24 years of age since the law took effect.

Highway at Night

The CAA, which considers distraction the top road safety issue these days, thinks people should approach the idea of raising speed limits with caution. (UrbanImages/ Shutterstock)

"The findings of the study demonstrated measurable improvement in road safety with clear evidence of speed reductions on provincial highways, as well as a remarkable reduction in collision casualties and the number of drivers engaging in extreme speeding," Nichols said.

The Ontario Provincial Police considers speeding a form of aggressive driving and a major cause of collisions, says Sgt. Kerry Schmidt of the OPP's Highway Safety Division.

In 2013, the OPP issued 219,000 speeding tickets and investigated 253 fatal motor vehicle collisions. Forty-seven (16 per cent) of the 292 deaths in those collisions were speed-related.

Schmidt says there is "quite a spread" in speeds driven on 400-series highways.

"I know that everyone thinks that everyone is travelling far in excess of the speed limit, but if you were to actually monitor traffic and look at the speeds you'd be surprised how many people are driving at the speed limit, as well as below the speed limit."

Saskatchewan's move to reduce the speed limit on a stretch of the Trans-Canada highway, as well as Highway 12 north from Saskatoon, "was just to increase safety on those stretches of highway," says Joel Cherry, a communications consultant for the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure.

Both stretches of road are busy and have at-grade access points.

"There was definitely pretty significant lobbying made by people in the area, and the ministry listened to their concerns," Cherry said.

Safe and responsible

Public sentiment also had an impact a decade ago when the limit for some Saskatchewan highways was increased to 110 from 100. 

At the time — 2003 — there was "significant public interest in raising the speed limits to 110, and it was determined that the design specifications of the highways could accommodate the increased speed limit," Cherry said.

"Other jurisdictions, such as Alberta, already had 110 km/h speed limits and it was observed that drivers there responded in a safe and responsible manner."

The CAA, which considers driver distraction the top road safety issue these days, thinks people should approach the idea of raising speed limits with caution.

Making decisions based on fact, and trying out pilot projects are good ideas, Jack says.

"At the same time … the overwhelming majority of evidence internationally is that speed kills, so that raising highway limits generally is likely to lead to more fatalities."

With files from The Canadian Press