Sign crew installs new speed limit markers on Highway 97C in 2014. Limit for that highway has been returned to 110 km/h, but the main Coquihalla Highway limit remains at 120. (B.C. government)

B.C. VIEWS: Setting speed limits in a post-fact political environment

Media prefer ‘speed kills’ narrative, even when it fails to appear

The B.C. government’s latest adjustment of speed limits on rural highways is a case study in how modern politics and media run over the facts and leave them on the side of the road.

You may have heard that in early November, speed limit increases were rolled back on 14 of the 33 segments of rural B.C. highway where they were increased by 10 km/h in 2014. You probably didn’t hear that 16 other sections were left as is, because the accident rate didn’t go up with increased limits.

In some cases, speed measurement showed the higher speed limit resulted in average travel speed, and accidents, going down. Across the province, exceeding the posted speed limit was determined by police to be an insignificant factor in collisions.

For all segments with increased speed limits, the biggest factor by far in three years of police collision reports is “driver inattentive” at 25 per cent. That’s followed by “road conditions” (15 per cent), “driving too fast for conditions” (13 per cent), “fell asleep” (five per cent) and “wild animal” (four per cent). Exceeding the posted speed limit was tied with impaired driving at two per cent each.

These are the facts that weren’t allowed to get in the way of a juicy political story.

Transportation Minister Claire Trevena mostly stuck to her script, but savoured her days as an opposition critic, attacking then-minister Todd Stone for his allegedly irresponsible decision to increase speed limits. Trevena allowed that it was “shocking” that accidents increased by 17 per year on her home stretch of highway, from Parksville to Campbell River, after not changing at all the first year after the increase.

And sure enough, it was Stone who faced a wall of TV cameras and demands that he explain how he could be so reckless as to increase speed limits.

I’m guilty of feeding this narrative too. It was I who in 2014 revealed that “Hot Rod Todd,” as he was known, once got (gasp) a speeding ticket on the Coquihalla! That’s why the speed limit for the Coquihalla was raised to the unprecedented 120 km/h, so the minister could blast back and forth to his Kamloops home!

The story practically writes itself, but like most coffee shop wisdom, it’s bunk. As it turns out, the Coquihalla speed limit stays at 120. As Stone pointed out, it remains among the safest highways in the province.

One obvious factor in this three-year period is the winter of 2016-17, the coldest on record for Metro Vancouver and large parts of southern B.C. And last winter featured heavy snow.

Harsh winter weather may explain why drivers slowed down on some stretches of road where speed limits had been increased. Anyone with highway driving experience knows that whatever the posted limit, the majority of responsible drivers choose how fast they will go.

Transportation ministry engineers use a measure called “85th percentile speeds,” which they define as “a representation of the speed at which reasonable and prudent drivers choose to travel.”

It’s important to understand this, as the province and its taxpayers wrestle with the soaring costs of accidents and ICBC claims. Calling the corporation’s financial situation a “dumpster fire” over and over again is easy for reporters, and great politics for Attorney General David Eby, but it doesn’t get anyone closer to solutions.

Our highways are safer, vehicles are safer, driver training is more rigorous, and yet costly accidents continue to increase.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press Media. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca


@tomfletcherbc
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