Les Leyne: Stone generous with speed-limit data

VKA-Leyne02832.jpgThings are going to be a lot different around here when Todd Stone is premier, I’ll tell you that right now.

There will be no more of this frip-frappery, and a lot less gimcrackery as well. All the glib ad hocery will be gone, too. Things will be a lot more … earnest.

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These observations are based on the experience of covering the transportation and infrastructure minister’s three-day-long news conference this week devoted to speed-limit changes. (Correction: I just checked the time and it was only 90 minutes. It just felt like three days.)

The issue at hand was the update he promised when he increased speed limits on selected sections of roads in late 2014. One good thing about Stone is that when he promises something, he does his darndest to deliver it. But delivering the promised report card on speed-limit changes involved a slight political problem.

Although the numbers are inconclusive and open to interpretation, there are a few stretches of highway where speed limits were increased and crashes increased as well.

That’s obviously not what Stone wanted to happen. Also on the negative side, there was an overall increase in crashes. They’re up about 11 per cent, in keeping with a North American trend.

So his job this week was to fix the perception that his speed-limit hikes increased crashes. He got around to it, eventually. Toward the end of his news conference, he announced the speed-limit hikes on two stretches in the Fraser Canyon and the Interior are being abandoned and will be knocked back down by 10 kilometres per hour.

But it took a long time to get there. There was a sermon off the top about safety being the ministry’s top priority. It was completely sincere, but that’s already widely assumed.

There was a vivid account of how new variable speed signs are working. He went to a traffic control centre where just before his visit, the sign postings where lowered. Traffic slowed down, then the posted speed went back up and traffic sped up. So that was pretty good.

But most of the run-up to the speed backdown was a long recitation of all the good things that were happening in Stone’s ministry. He’s got a Barry Penner-esque knack for raising his profile by diving headlong into his portfolio and finding every opportunity to tell the world about the great things that are happening.

Penner did it with marmots. Stone’s doing it with highways.

He talked about wildlife detection systems near Cranbrook that tell you when a large animal is on the road, and all the underpasses and overpasses he’s building for them (untolled).

He talked about winter tires, as a followup to his star turn in last fall’s media appearance on the need for winter tires. He explained in great detail what the new Keep Right Let Others Pass signs mean. (They mean: Get the hell out of the way, left-lane hogs!)

How many bridges has Todd Stone built or repaired, you might be wondering?

The answer is 500. How many kilometres of rumble strips has he commissioned?

The answer is 6,700 kilometres.

All in all, it amounted to ”a tremendous array of initiatives,” as the minister bashfully conceded.

The long preamble led up to “the last thing I want to touch on,” which was the decision to abandon the speed hike on two stretches, out of an abundance of caution. He was quick to note how inconclusive the crash data is. It’s only one year of evidence and there’s always a host of other issues. To the extent people pay any attention to speed limits, the analysis shows the 85th percentile reading (the speed most drivers are going) changed by just two kilometres an hour after the limits were adjusted. Distracted driving and more traffic likely have more to do with the crash increase.

You could argue the speed-limit changes didn’t make a bit of difference to anything. But there was a full technical briefing, dozens of pages of reports, a supporting cast of engineers and a long speech from Stone. When he runs for premier, as he will some day, brace yourself for exhaustive explanations about everything.


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