Higher Speeds Drive Traffic Deaths Up

This archived article is from January 2004. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

Fast Driving is an Emerging Safety Problem

Speeding increases the likelihood and severity of a crash. The faster a vehicle is moving, the less time the driver has to react to a hazard, and for other road users to react to that vehicle. A speeding vehicle requires more time and distance to stop, and is harder to control. Speed is a factor in 30 per cent of fatal crashes and 12 per cent of all crashes.

As speed increases over 100 km/h, the fatality rate of vehicle occupants goes up exponentially. For example, the chances of being killed in a vehicle traveling at 120 km/h are four times higher than at 100 km/h. When a car crashes near 200 km/h the chances of survival are minimal.

Speed of impact is critical for pedestrians, the most vulnerable road users. A 1995 European Transport Safety Council report found that only five per cent of pedestrians died when struck by a vehicle at 32 km/h; fatalities increased to 85 per cent at 64 km/h.

Speed Kills

There is an ongoing debate in Canada about speed limits on major highways. Advocates of higher limits need only look across the border for proof that raising speed limits is a bad idea.

A recent study examined the impact of higher travel speeds on US rural interstates after the repeal in November 1995 of the national speed limit. Researchers found states that had increased their speed limits to 75 mph (120 km/h) experienced a shocking 38 per cent increase in deaths per million vehicle miles than expected, compared to deaths in those states that did not change their speed limits. States that increased speed limits to 70 mph (112 km/h) showed a 35 per cent increase in fatalities.

The US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has tracked vehicle speeds on rural and urban interstates since 1987. Preliminary data for 2003 show the highest speeds the Institute has ever observed. In California, for example, the speed limit is 70 mph. However, the mean speed is 74. Well over two-thirds (69 per cent) of drivers go over 70 mph, and 19 per cent go faster than 80 mph.

As US speed limits have risen, statistics show an associated increase in lives lost. The Canada Safety Council seriously questions why any jurisdiction in Canada would choose to follow this lead.

Speed Sells

High performance is the mantra of today's automotive manufacturers. From 1980 to 2000 the average horsepower-to-weight ratio, a key measure of performance, increased by over 50 per cent. In the 2000 model year, six per cent of vehicles had turbocharged engines, the highest percentage ever.

Commercials show vehicles racing and swerving on miraculously empty roads, chasing or being chased, and performing daredevil stunts. Routine disclaimers that once warned the unwary consumer to drive safely or obey speed limits have all but disappeared.

Such lifestyle advertising subliminally encourages drivers to break the law by speeding and driving recklessly. The impact of that message is powerful. In recent years, street racing has become a deadly fad in Canadian cities. However, young speedsters are only part of a much larger problem. Speeding has become widely accepted by Canadian drivers. 'Everybody does it' is a common excuse for breaking the speed limit.

Commercials that glamorize excessive speeding promote unacceptable driver attitudes and behaviours. They also violate the Canadian Code of Advertising, which states that advertisements must not 'depict situations that might encourage unsafe or dangerous practices or acts.' To file an official complaint, contact Advertising Standards Canada. Please send a copy of your complaint to the Canada Safety Council.

Enforcement Needed

There is a proven way to deter speeders. Enforce the speed limit. When drivers know they will be caught and penalized, they slow down. There's no substitute for strong police visibility in problem areas, but the police can't be everywhere. For obvious safety reasons they are reluctant to pursue speeding drivers on high-volume roads.

Photo-radar is a solution to the problem. Cameras, instead of police, identify vehicles that are breaking the speed limit. The owners of offending vehicles receive significant fines, but no points are assigned to anyone's driving record.

A poll commissioned by Canada Safety Council in August 2003 found two-thirds of the 2,000 respondents supported photo radar on the highway. When asked if there should be warning signs to advise of the possible presence of photo enforcement 68 per cent said yes.

A standard sign for photo enforcement should be installed along roads where cameras may be present. When speeders know they could be caught, many choose to slow down. The signs are essential, because the real purpose is not to catch drivers who break the law, but rather to stop them from offending in the first place.

2006 Update: Unsafe TV Ads

A University of Toronto study examined the prevalence and types of unsafe driving portrayed in televised automobile commercials as well as the use of safety promotion and disclaimers. They found that of 250 total commercials, unanimous agreement as to the presence of an unsafe driving sequence was found in 63 (25 percent). Aggressive driving accounted for 85 percent of these sequences, including 56 percent with speed violations; both are often factors in crashes. Safety promotion was present in only 30 (12 percent) of the commercials. The researchers raised concerns that the way commercials portray driving may affect consumer driving behaviour.