If that’s true — and it surely is — why not lower the standard speed limit from 50 km/h to 40 km/h?
Good question. That’s why Queen’s Park is seeking public input before it reduces the current default speed limit across the province.
The best way to answer that question is with another:
Why stop at 40 km/h? Why not lower the standard speed limit to 30 km/h, where the odds of surviving a car accident increase exponentially?
After all, the World Health Organization found that pedestrians struck by a vehicle at 30 km/h have a 90 per cent survival rate. That compares to a 50 per cent chance of being killed at speeds of 45 km/h.
If only life were so simple, we could all be governed — politicians, too — by mathematical equations. And set speed limits lower and lower.
Since it’s hard for vote-getting politicians to say this, allow me: Life — and driving, and crossing the street — is about balancing risks and making sensible judgment calls.
Yes, slowing down saves lives, in theory. But you can have too much of a good thing — after which you get diminishing returns in the real world.
The truth is that we risk death every time we step out onto the road — especially while staring stupidly into a smart phone, or letting our children cross the street without first teaching them to stop talking and start looking (both ways, and then a third or fourth time just to be sure).
Lowering the speed limit in school zones, or built-up residential areas and obvious hotspots, makes perfectly good sense (it’s usually 30 or 40 km/h) — because in those locations the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. But the likely result of imposing a general speed limit of 40 km/h across every city in Ontario would be impairing traffic, not improving outcomes.
Never mind the non-compliance from irate drivers if speed limits appear increasingly impractical. The bigger risk is continuing carelessness from pedestrians who are increasingly putting themselves in harm’s way.
This isn’t about blame the victim. It’s about accident prevention.
The more we perpetuate the fiction that speed is the sole culprit, the less personal responsibility pedestrians will take for staying safe. By promising to reduce speeds, politicians are giving people a false sense of security.
It’s puzzling that public safety focuses so much on making drivers pay instead of urging people to pay attention. Surely it’s as worthwhile to educate — not just legislate — against carelessness.
Recklessness isn’t just on the roads, it’s also at the crossroads of people and cars at every intersection. Perhaps it’s something in the province’s political culture, or fluoridated water.
Police are only too quick to ticket jaywalkers, pouncing on our most alert pedestrians who usually look both ways because they’re not relying slavishly on traffic signals for full protection. Yet, paradoxically, there is no less peril for law-abiding pedestrians at intersections who wait passively for the light to change, then reflexively — thoughtlessly — cross the road without looking both ways, utterly confident that since the law is on their side, they will be protected from right-turning vehicles or speeding drivers who run red lights.
If politicians want to reduce pedestrian fatalities, why not ban right turns at red lights, as some other jurisdictions have? The answer is that we recognize right turns as a necessary evil to maintain traffic flow.
In a perfect world, we could keep reducing speed limits across the city in the vain hope that it would protect pedestrians everywhere. But it won’t save us from ourselves.
In 2012, Toronto’s chief medical officer Dr. David McKeown called for a 30 km/h speed limit on residential streets and a citywide limit of 40 km/h elsewhere. To do that, the province would first have to amend its own Highway Traffic Act, which is what the Transport Ministry is now looking at.
To put those numbers in another (non-metric) context: The current general limit of 50 km/h works out to 31 mph. Lowering it to 40 km/h as the new default would translate to 25 mph.
At what point do you stop? Let’s start with a fresh emphasis on protecting pedestrians from themselves, by reminding them that speed limits — like traffic signals — offer limited protection.
Looking both ways — from side to side, not up and down while texting — would go a longer way toward saving lives. Safeguarding children with vigilant crossing guards and adult supervision — and yes, go-slow zones for schools — would pay unquestioned dividends.
But dialling down the speed limit everywhere else will do more to salve consciences than save lives.