June 20, 2013 11:15 AM | By Mark Richardson for MSN Autos

Canada’s need for speed

Grrrr. A determined Mark Richardson attempts to reach the Sprinter's top speed (© Photo: Mark Richardson)

Grrrr. A determined Mark Richardson attempts to find out just how fast a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter can go

Mark Richardson

Mark Richardson — On the Road

Speed – gotta love speed, right? So how about speed limits?

The Net’s full of arguments about speed limits. It’s a polarizing issue: nobody’s happy with them.

Half of us believe they should be raised because they’re making criminals out of regular people, driving safely but swiftly. “Cars are designed to be way more capable than ever before,” they say. “Why haven’t the speed limits changed with the technology?”

The other half thinks they’re too generous, especially the speed limit on their street. “People fly along here all the time. I’ve got kids, you know!”

The one thing that seems constant here in Canada is that speed limits on our controlled-access highways will not change either way without massive public outcry. See the contradiction there? Canada? Massive public outcry? Not going to happen, and that’s too bad.

Related link: Driver's car suspended after 221 km/h speeding ticket

The 85th percentile

One hundred sixty five kilometres per hour in a Sprinter. Gives the FedEx slogan "The World On Time" a whole new meaning. (© Photo: Mark Richardson)

One hundred sixty five kilometres per hour in a Sprinter. Gives the FedEx slogan "The World On Time" a whole new meaning.

I’ve been thinking about speed limits recently because I’ve just returned from Germany, where I drove a Sprinter delivery van on the Autobahn and wound it right up to its maximum speed. I did this only because it was legal there and not here.

I could justify it by saying I was testing the various electronic safety systems that protect the van from high gusts of side wind, and which keep it on the straight and narrow no matter how bad the conditions, but the truth is it was fun. On a downhill straight, we reached 165 km/h and my co-driver snapped a souvenir photo, and then we relaxed and let the van come back down to a more comfortable speed. For the diesel-powered Sprinter, that was around 120 km/h.

This just happens to be about the maximum speed the police will let you drive in Canada where the legal limit is 100 or 110 km/h. You’ll probably get away with 125 km/h, but much north of that and you’re relying on the cop’s good mood.

The police will let you drive this speed because it’s within the 85th percentile of all vehicles on the road. This means that 85 per cent of cars and bikes and trucks will not exceed 120 km/h, though the actual speed will vary depending on conditions: it’ll come down if it’s raining, and it’ll go up on a Friday afternoon leaving the city.

Related link: What are the most common excuses people make for speeding?

The science of speed limits
Theoretically, this is how road designers determine speed limits. If it’s safe for 85 per cent of vehicles, then that’s the speed everyone should drive. There’s a lot of science at work here with a bunch of variables to consider:

  • Controlled access highways are the safest roads of all. Higher speeds are possible because traffic travels in one direction. Filtering ramps on and off the highway are designed to increase and decrease speed, up to and down from the traffic flow.
  • The higher the speed, the greater the severity of any collision.
  • The lower the speed limit, the greater the number of people who will exceed it, and hence the greater the difference in speeds on the road.
  • The greater the difference in speed between two vehicles, the greater the likelihood of a collision.

Designers weigh all these factors, make recommendations as to the best speed limit, and then politicians and police choose the status quo. I’ve asked four different ministers of transport in Ontario if they would consider raising the speed limits on the 400-series controlled-access highways and each one has refused to even consider it. “If it saves just one life…” they said, and “the faster the traffic, the more gas is wasted. We owe it to our planet to slow down.”

This is why speed limits won’t change here – because there’s too sanctimonious a response available without having to actually think about it. But elsewhere in the world, speed limits are being considered with much more careful thought.

Related link: Canada's worst speed traps

Change around the world
In Germany, home of that fabled Autobahn, every election brings a new proposal to place speed limits on the country’s entire road system. Nowhere else in the world allows such high speeds on public roads. On Britain’s Isle of Man (home of the annual motorcycle TT races), there are no limits on rural roads, nor in a couple of Indian states, but none of those highways are as fast and well designed as the Autobahn.

In fact, there are already blanket limits in Germany, even on the half of the 12,845 km system that allows unlimited speed. The entire network has an “advisory maximum speed” of 130 km/h, in line with most of Europe, though this is not mandatory and the average speed tends to be about 140 km/h. However, many German insurance companies make it very clear that if you should crash at a speed above that “advised” 130 km/h, you will not be covered. That’s a powerful deterrent.

It’s going to happen – it’s inevitable,” a German driver told me while I was there recently, when I asked about potential speed legislation. “Not in this election, but maybe in five years. We’re alone in the world on this, and it’s really divisive for drivers. You talk about speed limits in Germany and it’s like talking about gun control in the United States.”

In the U.S., it was Richard Nixon’s administration that imposed the infamous “double nickel” speed limit of 55 mph (88 km/h) on the entire country, to reduce fuel consumption during the 1973 energy crisis. Whether it reduced it by more than a negligible amount is debatable, but many states bucked the law and imposed their own rules. The national speed limit was repealed in 1995, and now individual states determine their own limits.

Balance the cost

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter speedometer (© Photo: Mark Richardson)

It's a bit hard to see, but the needle is lingering on the far side of 160 km/h.

They balance the potential to save gas against the time wasted travelling in your car, not to mention the political popularity of quicker and more practical speeds. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that faster traffic uses seven to 14 per cent more fuel, which it translates to paying an extra quarter per gallon of gas for each 5 mph you drive over 55 mph. But time is also money, especially in North America.

The result is that only Hawaii has a state speed limit lower than most of Canada, at 60 mph (95 km/h) compared to the general Canadian limit of 100 km/h (62 mph). All the New England states except Maine, and several others, have 65 mph limits, which is around the 110 km/h permitted on the fastest highways in Canada, but most of the rest of the U.S. is 70 or 75 mph. A few places allow 80 mph, and in Texas, the wide and straight toll road between Austin and San Antonio was designated last year with an 85 mph limit (138 km/h).

Have these higher limits meant an increase in average speeds, with drivers routinely exceeding the posted limit by the same margin as before? No – they drive at the natural speed of their vehicles, as they’ve always done. They just travel more comfortably, without worrying that they’re about to get a ticket despite their safe driving.

Americans and Europeans know the value of getting somewhere quickly while making sure it’s safe to do so. Why don’t Canadians? 

About the author: Mark has been a journalist on the road for 25 years with both car and motorcycle. He's the author of a couple of books — Zen and Now: On the trail of Robert Pirsig and the art of motorcycle maintenance (2008) and Canada's Road: A journey on the Trans-Canada Highway from St. John's to Victoria (2013) — with more on the way. 

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