Pump the brakes: safety experts say more review needed before Alberta ups highway speed

Experts say upping Alberta's highway speed limit will result in more injuries, with lessons to be learned across the border in British Columbia.

If passed, Bill 213 would increase some speed limits to 120 km/h

Experts say there are lessons for Alberta to learn from British Columbia, where speed limits were upped in 2014, only to be rolled back in some areas four years later. (Government of B.C.)

Road safety experts are cautioning Alberta to slow down a proposal to raise speed limits on highways outside its cities.

A private member's bill could make Alberta the latest province to tinker with its speed limits. The bill, put forward by Spruce Grove-Stony Plain MLA Searle Turton last week, would increase speed limits on all non-urban divided highways from 110 km/h to 120. 

British Columbia raised its highway limits by the same margin in 2014. Gordon Lovegrove, associate professor of engineering at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, found fatal collisions increased by 118 per cent over the next three years, which prompted the government to revert back in some areas.

His advice for Alberta?

"Do [this] with a lot of forethought and planning," he said. 

Increasing speed means there's that much more energy to contend with should a crash happen. 

"We become a pinball inside a car in a crash," he said. "The driver has less reaction time at a higher speed, you've got less distance because you've gone further at that higher speed before you react."

"What are you willing to give up for the benefit, for the gain of, what, are you going to arrive five minutes faster?" he said.

Turton, for his part, says Alberta's stretches of flat, straight highways are built for the higher limit. But if concerns arise, the bill grants the transportation minister power to lower it again where needed.

Don Voaklander, director of the injury prevention centre at the University of Alberta, said the impacts of the bill would reach beyond just individuals. 

He estimates the higher speed equates to a 10 per cent rise in fuel consumption, and called putting forward the bill during a climate crisis "a bit tone deaf." 

He said the increase might be okay on some east-west highways, but on Highway 2, it could be problematic. 

"There's a mix of slow and fast vehicles and it's very densely populated at certain times of the day," Voaklander said. 

"Traffic collisions themselves, raising the speed limit by that much, will raise the number of casualty collisions by about 18 per cent, but the number of fatality collisions is about 36 per cent."

Voaklander said there are a lot of people who drive 120 km/h anyway on the highway. If the speed limit gets raised, people could just go that much faster, he said.

And that could increase the speed differential between vehicles, making highways more dangerous, both experts said. Slower vehicles, such as RVs and transport trucks, might stay below the limit, while speeders will feel emboldened to continue driving above it. 

With files from Jordan Omstead