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Trevor Hancock: Speed injures and it kills, Minister Stone

Dr. Perry Kendall, the provincial health officer, released a report on road safety last week. Public, media and political reaction seem to have focused largely on one issue — speed — and the related issue of photo radar.

Dr. Perry Kendall, the provincial health officer, released a report on road safety last week. Public, media and political reaction seem to have focused largely on one issue — speed — and the related issue of photo radar.

I will return to those topics shortly, but first let’s all take a big breath, step back and look at the full report.

First, there is considerable cause for celebration. The rate of deaths related to motor-vehicle crashes has declined by more than 70 per cent since 1986, and the number of deaths is down 60 per cent.

Second, we are not doing as well as we might; our rates of deaths and serious injuries are about average in Canada, and other countries do better, so there is room for improvement. Moreover, rates are much higher in the Interior and the North, where they are about the same as they were for B.C. as a whole in 1986.

Kendall’s report notes that “motor-vehicle crash fatalities and serious injuries are systemic failures.” He might have added the aphorism that “every system is perfectly designed to yield the results it gets.” It seems our present system is designed to deliver an unacceptable and largely avoidable burden of death and injury.

His report stresses a safe-system approach that has four pillars: Safe road users, safe speeds, safe roadways and safe vehicles. You have to work on all four together.

But let us consider speed. Between 2008 and 2012, speed was the No. 1 human factor contributing to motor-vehicle crashes involving deaths (although it was surpassed by driver distraction in 2013). In 2012, it was associated with more than a third of such deaths. Kendall reports: “There is an established and expanding body of research showing a clear relationship between safe speeds and road safety.”

Of particular note are these two facts from his report: First, “90 per cent of pedestrians survive when struck by a vehicle travelling 30 km/h, but only 20 per cent survive when struck at 50 km/h.”

Second, data for a 20-year span in London showed that reducing the speed limit to 30 km/h “was associated with a 42 per cent reduction in road fatalities.”

Small wonder, then, that one of Kendall’s key recommendations was to “reduce the default speed limit on roads within municipalities and treaty lands from 50 km/h to a maximum of 30 km/h,” which is “the survivable speed for pedestrians and cyclists.” Yet the Times Colonist reported that Todd Stone, B.C.’s minister of transportation, “threw cold water on Kendall’s recommendation” to lower the speed limit in urban areas.

Whose judgment do you trust on this? A minister who has increased the speed limit on 1,300 kilometres of rural highways to 120 km/h and sought to penalize people who are not speeding if they don’t get out of the way of those who are breaking the law, or the provincial health officer?

Kendall also recommended implementing “electronic speed management provincewide. This could include speed cameras.” He cited evidence that both speed cameras and the related technology of “section control” (monitoring average speed over a length of road) are effective in reducing speeds.

Stone was even more specific in responding to this: “We do not have any plans to re-introduce photo radar,” he said, and there was the predictable chorus from the usual sources about photo radar being just a tax grab.

What is so upsetting about photo radar? The speed limit is the law; break the law and you are penalized. If you don’t want a ticket, don’t speed. All photo radar does is increase the likelihood that you will be caught breaking the law, and increase the efficiency with which this life-saving law is enforced.

Would anyone suggest that being fined for punching someone is a tax grab? Would we hear howls of outrage if we put more police on the streets to prevent this? Would we support perpetrators who complained it wasn’t fair, they hadn’t been warned they were being watched? Do most people object when photo surveillance assists in convicting someone of assault?

Well, speeding is assault with a vehicle. Get over it, people. And listen to the provincial health officer, Minister Stone.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.