Just last month British Columbia raised its speed limits on some of its highways to 120 km/h, marking a change not only in the velocity of cars but of the attitudes of road authorities.
The provincial speed limits had been reduced in the 1970s as a way to save fuel during the oil crisis that followed what has come to be known as the Arab Oil Embargo. The USA imposed similar limits, shaving down maximum speeds from 65 or 70 and even 75 to 55 miles per hour (90 km/h). However, those limits were rescinded in the 1990s.
With the savings in fuel – which were real, though not as large as hoped – came stories and statistics about a reduced carnage on the roads. This encouraging news was often attributed to the lower speeds. Was that the reason, and do lower speed limits save lives? It depends whom you ask:
- A number of U.S. studies concluded that the drop in fatalities was an anomaly — deaths went up the next year.
- Some contended that the drop was due to improvements in car safety.
- As reduced speed limits were unpopular in Canada and the U.S., many drivers ignored them, making it difficult to judge how much they helped improve road safety anyway.
- Fatalities also dropped in countries that didn’t have the reduced speed limits. This is getting complicated.
- Finally, that quintessence of road libertarianism, the German autobahn, gives everyone pause. Despite a lack of any speed limit on half of Germany’s highways, that country’s road fatality rate is lower than Canada’s.
A growing belief that a moderate increase in speed is not harmful led B.C. to raise the limit. Transportation Minister Todd Stone has stated that the change will in fact make B.C. roads safer. According to this view, good traffic flow, and not low speed, is more important for safety.
Not everyone is happy with the change. Spokespeople for the RCMP and the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police have expressed concern that the higher speed limits will lead to more road accidents. Several groups have sprung up to protest against the lower speed limits, and there has been a growing dissatisfaction with the 100 km/h limit. Now it appears their time has come, at least in British Columbia. If they turn out to be right, then driving won’t be more dangerous in the province – just a little faster.