As It Happens

Volvo's 180km/h speed limit only a 'first step' towards safety, says automotive journalist

Volvo is setting a 180 km/hr speed limit on their cars to prevent road deaths. But automotive writer Brendan McAleer thinks it is a bit of an empty promise and that there are more pressing safety issues that need addressing.

'I think it's a very easy move to slow down their vehicles,' says Brendan McAleer

Volvo announced that starting in 2020, it is imposing a speed limit of 180km/h on all its cars. (Harold Cunningham/Getty Images)
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Volvo says it's always prided itself on safety — but starting next year, the Swedish car company is taking that to the next level. 

Volvo recently announced that it is imposing a top speed limit on their cars: 180 kilometres an hour. 

The measure is meant to prevent road deaths, but Brendan McAleer isn't convinced.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with the Vancouver-based automotive writer about why Volvo and other car companies could do better by addressing more pressing safety issues like seatbelt use.

Here is part of their conversation.

Why do you think Volvo has decided to slow down its vehicles?

I think that we live in an era where corporations like to show that they're virtuous — and I think it's a very easy move to slow down their vehicles, because Volvo buyers are not particularly interested in high speed hi-jinx.

And also, most European manufacturers offer some speed limiting on their vehicles. It's just that it's usually quite a bit higher than what Volvo is doing here.

But who's driving 180 kilometres an hour out there?

Well, in Europe, I mean, there is the unrestricted autobahn and you can go that fast.

But certainly, I don't think that that's something that people are doing here. In Ontario and B.C., there's nowhere that you could drive that fast and not have your vehicle go home on a flatbed.

But I think people like to have the potential in their back pocket. 

But now, as you mentioned, in European countries, and for anyone who has ever driven on their autobahns and their freeways, it's extraordinary how fast they go. So would this make a difference for people possibly buying a Volvo in a European country that this Swedish car manufacturer is going to hold you to maximum 180km/h?

Not really. Most autobahn speed limits are about 130 km/h. And they do sort of suggest that there are suggested speed limits. As Homer Simpson famously observed, "speed limits are a suggestion, like pants."

In the case of Germany, there is currently sort of some debate going on as to whether the unrestricted Audubon should actually have some kind of limits capped on it.

Accidents are infrequent. German driver training is very good. But when they do happen, it's really serious. 

Volvo says it has always prided itself on developing safer vehicles like its pilot assist system shown here. (Harold Cunningham/Getty Images)

Do you have any idea what percentage or how many of the accidents or collisions or problems on the highways is because of speed?

Well, I only really am aware of North American kind of fatalities currently off the top my head.

And weirdly, Volvo is positioning this move as being as important, or as related to, their three-point seat belt, which they developed and then removed the patents on it so anybody could do this.

They're saying that the three-point seatbelt has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

However, the No. 2 cause of fatalities in North America is people driving around without their seatbelts, still, which is just mind boggling to me that people are still doing that.

It's still very much a case of you can restrict what human beings are able to do, but they're going to find ways to sort of maybe abuse the technology a little bit.

As you mentioned, the typical Volvo driver is not someone you associate with wanting to drive really fast. But we do see an Italian car maker [Automobili Pininfarina], there's news of this unveiling of the fastest street-legal car in the world that can go 400 km/h. So who's driving that vehicle?

I mean again, for that particular vehicle, it's not so much that you're going to, but that you can. It's a bragging right.

It maybe seems like it's harder to impress people with top speed because it is such of non-important measuring tool compared to how people will actually use their cars.

And when I was a kid, you know, that 200 m/h, 330 km/h kind of limit was this magical barrier that you had to be very skilled and only the most exotic and best cars in the world could get past it.

And now you can go down to your Dodge dealership and buy, you know, a four-door Charger Hellcat, which will do 328 km/h and they'll give you financing and put child seats in the back if you want to.

So we are at a weird time when everything is faster and more powerful and really easy to drive fast.

And even though Volvo drivers would sort of traditionally be the cardigan wearing, you know, pipe-smoking college professor, if you drive a large crossover today, it's like an insulated experience. It's like being in an aircraft. You often don't notice how fast you're going.

And so Volvo limiting that, I mean it's a pretty high limit still, but them sort of taking that first step does open the conversation to be like: what's the responsibility of manufacturers to provide these things that can be used or abused and that are making us all collectively kind of drive faster than we perhaps realize?

Written by John McGill. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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