Comment: Why lowering speed limits is a good idea

There are so many myths surrounding the issue of reducing residential speed limits.

We often hear that reducing speed limits is a government tax grab. I know many people who support this initiative, including politicians, and government revenue is not even part of the equation, except perhaps to consider the cheapest possible way to slow traffic down. Has it occurred to these opponents that it might just be about making life more livable in the urban environment?

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For those who have never caused an accident or who don’t live on a busy residential street, it’s easy to believe that reducing neighbourhood speed limits is an unnecessary solution to a nonexistent problem. Tell that to the multitude of people who live on streets where traffic constantly makes them feel uncomfortable whenever they are outdoors. Tell that to the thousands of people who have been involved in urban car accidents or have had loved ones lost or maimed by vehicles in the urban environment.

Many precious pets have been killed on neighbourhood streets. Everybody knows someone who has lost a pet to a car. Deer collisions cause significant vehicle damage every year and, in some cases, personal injury.

All of this comes at a cost to society. If it doesn’t happen to you, though, it’s probably all out of sight and out of mind. If you drive through someone else’s neighbourhood in your car, it’s easy to disregard the effect that the noise and the speed of your vehicle has on the residents.

There’s a concern that lower speed limits will increase travel time or cause gridlock. The fact is that travel time in urban areas has a lot more to do with traffic-control devices — traffic lights, stop and yield signs, crosswalks, etc. Gridlock is caused by volume. Traffic actually moves smoothly at low speeds.

It’s often heard that no one will respect “unrealistic” speed limits, anyway. Wherever reduced urban speed limits have been widely applied, average speeds have gone down. Eventually, normative pressures will prevail. Remember that drinking and driving used to be socially acceptable.

Others argue that the problem lies with “other” drivers. You are a competent driver, right? You can handle driving at 50 km/h (or more) on an urban street. What could possibly go wrong? So why should you have to slow down to the lowest common denominator?

It’s not that simple. There’s more to it than driver competency. We’re all just a bit too chauvinistic and individualist. It’s part of human nature. The other part of human nature is that we often don’t see the big picture. We don’t usually see ourselves as a small part of a bigger problem. When you add the speed to the volume of traffic on many residential and urban streets, there is a problem. It’s not only one of safety but also of health and livability.

Studies from countries around the world show that reducing speed limits in the urban environment have the following effects:

• Reduced road trauma

• Reduced noise levels (reduced speed from 50 km/h to 40 = noise reduced by 40 per cent)

• Increased neighbourhood interaction

• Increased road use by cyclists and pedestrians

• Increased overall health of residents

• Minimal effect of travel time

• Reduced greenhouse gases (due to less acceleration and rapid braking)

• Reduced vehicle operation cost, and

• Reduced overall cost to society.

Many jurisdictions have already acted on these findings and are experiencing the benefits.

In Graz, Austria’s second-largest city, when 30 km/h limits were implemented throughout the town in the 1990s, fewer than 50 per cent of people supported the idea. After everyone, including motorists, saw the benefits, support rose to 80 per cent. Europe is way ahead of us on this, but the trend is growing in North America.

So, the question is this: Do we want residential neighbourhoods to be places of increased safety and livability, or conduits through which to move traffic without regard to the people who live there?


Dave Ferguson is a member of Community Advocates for Reduced Speed. He lives in Saanich.

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