While maximum speeds are posted along almost all roads and highways in Ontario that has little to do with the operating speed, which is the average speed that vehicles are observed to travel. Speed enforcement is the police function of controlling the speed of vehicles so that the operating speed is closer to the posted maximum. In reality the operating speed is never as low as the speed limit and it varies from one road to another. Perhaps the greatest difference between maximum posted speed and operating speed occurs on Highway 401 where the operating speed is often close to 20 km/h higher than the maximum posted speed.

The mix of higher-speed cars and light trucks, and the much slower heavy trucks with governed maximum speeds, means that more traffic conflicts occur on the 400 series of highways in Ontario. This is a safety problem that has been created by Provincial legislation.

Recently the Ontario government decided to increase maximum, posted, speed limits along three sections of 400-series expressways from 100 to 110 km/h. The segments include a portion of Hwy 417 near Ottawa, a segment of the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) between Hamilton and St Catharines, and Hwy 402 between London and Sarnia. Many safety advocates have expressed concerns that increased speed limits result in higher incidence of death and injury.

It is difficult to argue with the statement that speed kills. If the speed of all traffic was reduced to 15 km/h our fatality and injury rates might be near zero. Yet, we would not get anywhere, there would be massive traffic jams and our society would break down. So there is an alternative argument that higher speeds should be maintained as these can provide the optimum between safety and efficiency. It is not clear to everyone as to where that optimum lies.

What is known, but not discussed, is that Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation collects very detailed data about traffic volumes and compositions along the 400 series highways in the Province. Magnetic coils imbedded in the traffic lanes are located between every interchange and these provide information such as the speed, type of vehicle and gap between vehicles passing through the sensors. The location of these traffic counters can be detected by noting a junction box attached to a small post situated on the grassy ditch next to the magnetic sensors.

Typical junction box along side of Hwy 401 at traffic counting station.

As it is possible to collect data 24 hours a day and 7 days a week it is likely that the Province maintains astronomic volumes of data on the characteristics of traffic in those areas where traffic counters exist. Thus the Province should be fully aware that operating speeds on the 400 series of highways are often much higher than the increased speed limit of 110 km/h that is being proposed. They should also be aware that changes in the posted maximum speed has little to do with what speed drivers will select.  The obvious example is the current 100 km/h posted speed yet the operating speed of light vehicles often approaches 120 km/h.

The factor that likely has a dramatic change in operating speeds is the extent of police enforcement. Yet it takes additional money to provide that enforcement. It does not take much imagination to observe that the current Ford Government has been slashing spending in every direction and why the maximum posted speed increase is being instituted. With the higher posted speed it is a way of requiring less police enforcement. If the operating speed on the three segments of highway of higher speeds does not increase by 10 km/h then there could be less need for police enforcement and therefore a reduction in policing costs. This is likely why the pilot projects have been introduced, likely to study driver behavior, as well as injury and death rates.

It still remains a hidden secret that police have difficulty enforcing speed limits on the 400 series of highways where traffic volumes are very high and it is difficult, and dangerous, to pull over a speeding driver in the vicinity of these high speeds and volumes. Traffic stops are not a solution often because many segments of highway do not provide a roadside where a traffic stop can occur in a safe manner.

The “Move Over” law is not a solution because in many instances large trucks can block the view of drivers such that a traffic stop may not be visible to approaching drivers. Delayed detection of a traffic stop means that drivers have a reduced time and distance to check their mirrors and conduct a lane change. Sudden brake applications cause further problems when drivers who have not detected the traffic stop are not expecting the braking and various conflicts are initiated. In many instances it can be safer for drivers to remain in their lanes and continue to travel at a constant speed past a police traffic stop. It is the very lane changes and speed changes that are being required by the Move Over law that could be making it more dangerous for those stopped on the roadside.

Ultimately some form of automated speed enforcement similar to photo radar must be implemented if there is any reasonable hope that operating speeds can be reduced to come closer to posted speeds. This can be complicated because some of the most dangerous situations occur when overall speeds are reduced due to road construction, previous collisions, weather, and rush hour traffic jams. In those instances the average speed of vehicles may be well  below the maximum, yet a few drivers will travel at a reckless speed that may be at or below the speed limit. The present limits of photo radar cannot capture these drivers yet they may be more dangerous than those who travel 20 km/h over the speed limit but only 10 km/h faster than the traffic around them.

In summary, in many instances safety does degenerate simply because of increased travel speeds. Yes, it is a factor, but of greater importance is the difference in travel speed that occurs when drivers drive exceptionally slower or faster than others around them.