Highway speed limit hikes linked to more crashes, fatalities: study

VANCOUVER — An increase in fatalities, injuries, crashes and insurance claims on some B.C. roads is linked to a 2014 decision by the former provincial government to raise speed limits on rural highways, a new study says.

“Our evaluation found increases in fatalities, injury, and total crashes on the road segments where speed limits were increased,” according to the report, published in a journal called Sustainability. The study was led by Vancouver General Hospital emergency room physician Dr. Jeff Brubacher and co-authors included road safety engineers at the UBC Okanagan campus.

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“There was a marked deterioration in road safety on the affected roads. The number of fatal crashes more than doubled (118 per cent increase) on roads with higher speed limits,” the report says

Speed limits on 1,300 kilometres of provincial highways in rural areas across the province were raised in July 2014. A maximum speed of 120 kilometres per hour on the B.C. roads made them the fastest in Canada.

This year, a massive multi-vehicle crash near Hope, on the Coquihalla Highway, resulted in more than two dozen people being rushed to hospitals. It was another in a series of crashes on the highway that had safety experts saying the speed limit should be reduced to even lower than what it was in 2014.

Dr. Brubacher told Postmedia News that “things got a lot worse” on the highways where speed limits increased, especially on the Coquihalla and Malahat highways.

“You will recall there was a lot of controversy at the time. Public health experts said ‘don’t do this’ and so did I,” said Brubacher, a road safety researcher who is also an associate professor at the University of British Columbia. He chairs the British Columbia Road Safety Strategy Research and Data Committee and also sits on the City of Vancouver Traffic Safety Advisory group.

“All of the pro-speed arguments, like the one that people were already driving over the speed limit, have been disproven in this research. The pro-speed advocates who’ve lobbied for speed-limit increases have based their view on crappy data at the time. The mistake should be admitted and speed rolled back because, from a safety point of view, it was the wrong decision,” he said.

Brubacher and co-authors conclude their study by saying that communities across Canada, especially those with slippery winter roads or those where roads traverse mountainous terrain, “should learn from this experience and resist pressure from pro speed advocates to raise speed limits without due consideration to road safety.”

B.C. Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Claire Trevena could not be reached for comment, but her ministry said in a statement that periodic reviews are done and the ministry is now looking at three years of data. It is possible some speed limits will be reduced on sections of highways where speed limits were increased in 2014.

That began in 2016 when speed limits were rolled back on two sections of roads — Highway 1 from Hope to Cache Creek and Highway 5A from Princeton to Merritt. On other highways, safety features were added including road signs, rumble strips, speed signs and wildlife warnings.

Report co-author Gord Lovegrove, a transportation engineering expert and associate professor at UBC Okanagan, said the government should have acted sooner, given that his research team shared their data with the government before study publication.

The study also found that roads with higher speed limits had a 43 per cent increase in auto-insurance claims and a 30 per cent increase in claims for injuries suffered in crashes.

The research was based on police data, insurance claims, ambulance dispatches, gasoline sales, travel speed data collected by government stations, and maps using crash site GPS co-ordinates of affected road segments. The study included statistics going back to 2000 and includes data up to 2016. It found the average number of annual crashes on affected roads was 265,187 from 2000 to 2016, including 488 that involved fatalities. From 2008 to 2014, for example, there was an average of 22 crashes each year involving fatalities. But once the speed limit rose, the number of fatal crashes rose to 33 in each of the following two years.

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