75% of Drivers Go Faster Than the Speed Limit on the 401 – So Why Aren’t We Raising It?

The most irritating cause of road rage on our highways is one without a protagonist, for it is not even a person but a sign – a speed limit sign.

We cannot put into words the overwhelming frustration of these restrictions holding us back like a toddler on a leash when there’s nothing but open road ahead.

We’re certainly not alone, either. Increasing speed limits has long been a topic of discussion, but so far British Columbia has been the only province to raise the limit to a reasonable speed – 120 km/h. (You’ll also find 110km/hr in some parts of Atlantic Canada.)

Most opponents of higher speed limits argue driving faster would reduce safety on our highways. While safety should be of foremost concern, there are reckless aspects of driver behaviour that are significantly more dangerous than speed: tailgating, passing on the right, slow drivers in the left lane, not signalling lane changes (not to mention distracted driving).

And, as CBC’s Marketplace has found, three out of every four drivers on the 401 (Canada’s busiest highway) are already going faster than the speed limit – so why not change it?

Germany, with no general speed limit on highways, has 4.3 road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants annually. In Canada, that number is 6. Getting your driver’s license in Germany also requires one to show levels of competence and skill behind the wheel, whereas the process here allows teens to drive after adequately parallel parking during a 15-minute road test.

Again, highway safety is an issue of driver ability, not speed.

To expand the comparison, it should be considered that Canada has more volatile weather than a country like Germany. It’s also probably safe to say that anyone who’d drive 130 km/h in a blizzard because a sign grants them that freedom shouldn’t have a car at their disposal; it shouldn’t be unreasonable to expect adults to exercise discretion and adapt to changing road conditions (Quebec offers a minimum limit of 60km/hr on its major highways, besides ensuring no one’s dragging along, it perhaps also reassures drivers that the maximum limit does not always have to equal there only option).

So, let’s say the speed limit is 130 km/h. The first thought most people have is that everyone would instinctively drive 150. After analyzing driver behaviour in B.C. the year following the increase to 120 km/h, however, data suggests drivers aren’t actually driving faster on average. People probably enjoy driving faster when conditions permit, and are wise enough to adjust their speed when traffic or weather impede.

Another progressive measure enacted in Germany is equipping all highways with speed sensors. While there’s an open speed limit on most highways, variable speed limits are in place to restrict speeds during adverse conditions (usually 130 km/h). Drivers going above these limits will be detected by the sensors and fined by mail, and going even 5 km/h over the limit could be punishable.

In Germany, then, you’re travelling at 130 km/h with lasers holding you hostage to the limit. In Ontario, by contrast, it’s not uncommon to drive 120-130 km/h while your eyes scan the horizon for cops and you’re darting between drivers who’re actually sticking to the 100 km/h speed limit. Not to mention being forced to pass slower cars driving on the right because ‘keep right except to pass’ is a foreign concept on our roads.

It’s not hard to understand which strategy is safer.