Higher speed limits don't mean safer roads, researcher says

As Ontario experiments with higher speed limits, including on a stretch of the 417 east of Ottawa, B.C.'s experience may have something to teach us.

B.C. study found 10 km/h speed limit increase resulted in 20% jump in fatal crashes

An Ontario government pilot project allows drivers to go 110 km/h on a section of Highway 417 between Anderson Road in Ottawa and the Ontario/Quebec border. (Jean-Sébastien Marier/CBC)

Raising the speed limit on highways can pose serious safety risks, according to research conducted by a British Columbia professor.

The speed limit on a section of Highway 417 between Ottawa and Quebec was increased to 110 km/h last week.

On the other side of the country, B.C. raised the speed limit on a 1,300-kilometre stretch of highway from 110 km/h to 120 km/h in 2014.

The idea was that drivers already travelling above the limit would continue at the same rate, while slower drivers would speed up, reducing the disparity between the slowest and fastest vehicles on the road.

"The main objective was to improve safety," said Gordon Lovegrove, an associate professor of engineering at the University of British Columbia. 

At higher speeds, drivers making mistakes are more catastrophic.- Gordon Lovegrove, University of British Columbia

It did the opposite.

The study, published in the scientific journal Sustainability, found that when the speed limit was increased by 10 km/h, the number of fatal collisions went up by more than 20 per cent.

Lovegrove said it's not the speed itself that's the problem, but how drivers react at those higher speeds.

"Everybody has heard the phrase 'speed kills.' Well, it's actually drivers making mistakes that kill themselves and/or their passengers and/or people in other cars. At higher speeds, drivers making mistakes are more catastrophic," he said.

Here's the other thing about higher speed limits: they don't help you get where you're going any faster.

"A 10 per cent higher speed limit doesn't always mean you get there 10 per cent quicker. You've got other traffic conditions. You've got weather conditions. As a driver, you're supposed to drive according to road conditions."

Severe injuries

That's not to say raising the speed limit will necessarily lead to more crashes, Lovegrove said, but injuries tend to be more severe when collisions do occur.

"The human body is a human body at any speed. At a higher speed, that human body is going to absorb more energy in the crash and yes, that injury will be more severe."

Insurance claims also rose between 30 and 43 per cent, depending on whether there was an injury or damage to a vehicle.

Faced with the data, the British Columbia government decided to reduce the speed limit along 570 kilometres of highway, or nearly half of the stretch where it had been raised.

Don't think the higher limit means police won't be watching for speeders, OPP warn. (Denis Babin/CBC)

Speeding's still speeding

If someone is driving even one kilometre per hour above the speed limit, they can still be charged, said Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Cynthia Savard.

The stunt driving limit remains at 150 km/h, despite the speed limit increase.

"So, really, if you're driving more than 40 km/h [over the speed limit] then you will be charged and prosecuted under the stunt driving [law]."

Meanwhile, Lovegrove suggests speed changes should come with better enforcement, and not just from police.

"Police can not be out there 24/7, so we have to use our technology, our emerging technology, to monitor and enforce, as well, to encourage people."

With files from Radio-Canada's Maxime Huard and Martin Robert