May 23, 2018

The Case For 30 km/h Speed Limits in Canadian Municipalities

Recently, I participated in a CBC Radio “On The Coast” dialogue with CBC’s Michelle Eliot. Karen Reid Sidhu, Executive Director of the Surrey Crime Prevention Society, joined me in addressing motor vehicle speeds, and the question of why convenience is sometimes viewed as more important than reducing crashes, injury and death on our roads.
There are some organizations promoting the idea that vehicular speed has no impact on safe road use. For example, Sense BC ran a campaign against photo radar in British Columbia, which was implemented on highways in the 1990s to save lives. The program was disbanded, and as we reported in late 2016 deaths and injuries of vulnerable road users have increased in this province over much of the past decade.
Dr. Perry Kendall, recently retired as BC’s Provincial Medical Health Officer, has detailed the 280 annual deaths and injuries from vehicular crashes in his report Where the Rubber Meets the Road.
Meanwhile, Sense BC is running a campaign today odiously entitled, “Speed Kills…Your Pocketbook.”
It’s people like Rod King MBE (that’s Member of the British Empire) who are focusing on saving lives by advocating for speed reduction in municipalities in the United Kingdom. King recently spoke to the Scottish Parliament in support of a bill proposed to lower speed limits to 20 miles per hour (equivalent to 30 km/h) in cities, towns and villages. That’s down from the current 30 miles per hour (50 km/h). It is being considered seriously.
In London and several counties across the UK, slowing speeds has resulted in twenty per cent fewer people dying, and many more avoiding serious injury. As King observes:

If we want consideration for the amenity and safety of residents and communities to be a national norm, then at some stage we have to enter a national debate about the quality of our streets and whether we have rules built around optimising the speed of vehicles, or about the liveability of people. We need to end our thinking about 30mph from our warm, protected, comfortable windscreen view of the street, and consider it from the height of an 8-year-old on the pavement, or with the mobility of an 80-year-old trying to cross the high street to a shop.

And here’s why:

  1. From an emissions standpoint, a vehicle going 50 km/h requires 2.25 times the energy to sustain a speed 50 km per hour, compared to 30 km/h. A speed reduction to 30 km/h reduces diesel NOx and PM10 pollution by 8 per cent.
  2. The stopping distance required for a vehicle at 50 km/h is nearly double that of a vehicle at 30 km/h. A speed reduction to 30 km/h doubles the available reaction time for everyone involved, increasing the likelihood of avoiding a crash.
  3. The force of a collision involving a vehicle driving 50 km/h is 2.25 times that of a collision at 30 km/h; 80 per cent of pedestrians will die in a 50 km/h impact. At 30 km/h, 85 per cent of pedestrians will survive an impact.

The World Health Organization and the European Union Transport & Tourism Committee both state that 30 km/h is best practice for road speed unless there are separated cycling and pedestrian facilitiesOther organizations, like the International Road Assessment Program, and the Global Network for Road Safety Legislators, also recommend 30 km/h speed limits.
The International Transport Forum of the OECD (Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development) states: “Where motorised vehicles and vulnerable road users share the same space, such as in residential areas, 30 km/h is the recommended maximum.”
In the Netherlands 70 per cent of urban roads have a 30 km/h speed limit or lower. In Scandanavia, 30 km/h is the usual posted speed in towns and villages. In fact, throughout Europe, 30 km/h is increasingly being set as the standard, with the exception of arterial roads with segregated cycling facilities.
Slowing vehicles in municipalities not only about saves lives; it also allows the reimagining of schools, shops and services as places to walk or bike to, or simply to feel safer to congregate and recreate in, as eloquently expressed in an opinion piece in the Edmonton Journal last year by Anna Ho of Paths for People.  Earlier this year this Globe and Mail editorial simply stated that Toronto vehicular traffic needs to slow, and that in order to reduce road deaths a huge cultural change must occur regarding ‘the need for speed’.
Slower speed limits challenges us to rethink our municipal fabric, and how it can serve people, and isolate the motor vehicle as an adjunct to, not a replacement for, social space.
It is a concept that is finally coming to fruition elsewhere in the world, and it’s time Canadian municipalities responded.

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  1. I agree that 30 km/h should be the default. In BC, this requires a change to the Motor Vehicle Act, as cities are currently 50, unless otherwise signed. They currently don’t have the ability to set a blanket for the city by a bylaw.

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      Editor’s Note: The former Minister of Transportation under the Liberal B.C. government claimed that he was never asked by any municipality to allow the lowering of speed limits in municipalities. That is not true.

  2. From Sense BC: “This graph shows that crash risk is minimized for those drivers travelling 10-15 km/h over the average speed. . . . Contrary to popular belief, there are more crashes at slower speeds than at faster speeds.”
    In my opinion, this is misleading to the point of being flat-out dishonest. They qualify the statement – “Raw speed and crash risk are not directly related” – then double down: “however, there is a U-shaped relationship which shows few fast drivers involved in crashes, and many more slow drivers involved in crashes.”
    The claim that most accidents happen at lower speeds is probably correct (though their citations of 1960s research do not inspire confidence). But the implication – that driving faster makes you safer – is insane. Either their communication is seriously incompetent, or that is the crazy message they are trying to send.
    Imagine if everyone took this at face value and sped up by 10-15 km/h. The the average speed would be faster, accidents would be serious, and *no one would be safer* because the safest would (they imply) would be those going 10-15 km/h over the new average speed (20-30 km/h over the old one).
    There are obvious reasons why slow cars would have crashes.
    Speeds are above average where roads are clear and conditions are good, e.g. a freeway with little traffic – i.e., when there’s nothing to collide with. Speeds are below average where there is congestion or confusion – e.g. merging traffic, intersections, narrow lanes, etc. People slow down because the conditions are dangerous. If crash rates are still high in poor conditions, if anything this means they are not slowing down enough! – exactly the opposite of the site’s message.
    And what are they hitting? Cars pulling out of parking spaces, cars turning, cars stopped at lights – in other words, slow cars. More generally, most collisions involve two vehicles going in different directions *or at different speeds*. The higher the speed differential, the higher the crash risk (that’s why we intuitively slow down when driving in a clear lane next to stopped traffic). Speeding increases that differential. Which vehicle is the speeding car most likely to collide with? The slow one. But slow cars are not dangerous on their own – they are *made* dangerous by fast cars (which helps explain the U-shaped curve).
    Thanks for the article. These Sense BC people are reprehensible. The take-away from this should be the exact opposite of what the web site suggests. If people listen to them, they’re going to get people killed.

    1. Geof,

      Firstly, the use of collision rates (# collisions/volume of traffic) can be misleading as this is more of a ball-park estimate and only good when comparing similar locations (including similar volumes). As the rate of collision relative to volumes is non-linear, as you have more traffic, the collision rates naturally go down (contrary to what you may think doubling volumes doesn’t double the collision frequency, and in fact congestion can reduce collisions or at least the severe ones). And highways usually have high speeds and high volumes, so it is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy when they claim higher speeds are safer, as again with higher volumes collision rates can go down. So you really can’t compare a high speed facility and a low-speed urban road fairly from a safety perspective. This is basic road safety 101 taught at UBC. So you are correct to assume this makes no sense, and I agree with you.

      And did you notice their article on “Doctors should leave engineering to engineers” which makes it sound like all engineers think excessive speeds do not correlate with serious collisions. Well the people that teach traffic engineer locally and world-wide have studied this and found increasing speed limits increases collisions. And this is not using the deprecated collision rate method but the latest and greatest “full Bayes method” (to account for confounding factors and get to the heart between the correlation of changes in speed to changes in collision frequency).

      What was found that the 2014 increases in speed limits over 33 sections of BC highways caused an 11.1% increase in severe (fatal or injury) collisions:

      This was also confirmed by an increase in ambulance calls into these sections by medical researchers. They even wrote about it in an OpEd:

      We need to act with the evidence before us and I really do not like the way they are trying to paint all engineers under the same colour, as I do not personally know of any transportation engineer who would disagree with these peer-reviewed findings.

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