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True or false: Speed limits are set for lousy drivers

Motorists make their way along Lakeshore Blvd. during rush hour in Toronto, Ont. in this 2012 file photo.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Is there any real evidence that speed limits are anything other than a cash grab? I regularly driving 20 to 30 km/h over the limit and I've never been in an accident. As a good driver, I know how fast I can safely drive. The problem is slower drivers. – Derek

Most of us think speed limits are for other drivers, but lower speed limits mean safer roads, says a road safety research group.

"Most people think they're better drivers than average, there's a lot of research showing that," says Dr. Ward Vanlaar, vice president of research with the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF). "But with respect to objective information, there's no question that speed kills if you're driving too fast for the conditions."

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The faster you go, the more kinetic energy you produce. And that means bigger, deadlier crashes.

"That's just the law of physics," Vanlaar says. "If you drive faster your chances of being in a crash go up and the chances of severe injuries go up."

Speed limits subjective

Over time, limits have been lowered in response to the oil crisis and raised by governments wanting to woo voters, Vanlaar says.

"Setting a speed limit is a subjective undertaking," Vanlaar says. "But when you look at the data in regards to crashes around the world: each time limits have been increased, the number and severity of crashes go up and each time they're decreased the number and severity of crashes go down."

Likewise, data shows that increased enforcement of speed limits lowers accident rates, Vanlaar says, adding, "it's pretty convincing."

So why do most drivers think speeding is safe?

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"It's a controversial topic because, in the grand scheme of things, it can be argued that a crash is a fairly rare event," he says. "Many people who speed have never been involved in a crash and they think whatever they're doing is safe. They look at what they see around them but they don't see the larger data."

Setting a speed limit is a balancing act between safety, politics and how people drive.

"You could go too far and just say 'It would be safer if we all just got our of our cars and walked,'" Vanlaar says.

Cash-grab?

Calling speed limits a cash-grab helps us justify breaking the law, says Dr. Leon James, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii.

"We often see enforcement as a waste of police resources ("Why aren't they out there catching murderers!") or as an infringement on our rights," says James in an e-mail . "These negative explanations allow us to justify breaking the speed limit without having to feel that we are scofflaws... but it's a law and people getting fined are breaking that law."

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Limits too low?

Sense BC, whose video Speed Kills: Your Pocketbook went viral last fall, says speed limits are set too low and drivers are getting charged to make money for the government and insurance companies.

"We believe fervently that speed limits and speed enforcement in Canada and particularly in B.C. are absolutely a cash-grab," says Sense BC cofounder Ian Tootill. "And insurance companies are in on it because they can raise premiums with no pushback – consumers are browbeaten into believing their actions are dangerous."

Tootill says speed is a factor in 3 to 4 per cent of crashes, but 50-80 per cent of traffic violations are speeding tickets.

"It's disproportionate," he says. "The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says all speeding is dangerous, but they're shills for the insurance industry."

Tootill wants to see speed limits set at the 85th percentile of the speeds people are actually driving – so, if that's 135 km/hr on the highway, that should be the speed limit.

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"It should be set at the upper safe limit of travel under ideal conditions," he says.

"Frankly, I have fantasies about having an autobahn in B.C. somewhere but the majority of people don't want that, we're not ready for that."

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