An example of Ontario police conducting a speed check from an overpass in response to news of higher numbers of speeding incidents.

A recent Global News article indicated that a City of Toronto news release indicated that there has been “…a 35 per cent increase in speeding tickets and an almost 200 per cent jump in stunt driving incidents compared to the same time last year”. Other news agencies have also reported similar information being released by police agencies in Ontario.

While this information may be accurate, there are some important, missing facts. Note that the article discusses numbers of tickets written by police but it does not indicate what the actual number of speeders was on the road. While the increased numbers of tickets may mirror the increased numbers of speeders we don’t actually know because no one has provided that information.

The City of Toronto possesses resources that monitor traffic volumes and speeds so it should have been simple for the City to include some of that data along with the “200 per cent increase” in their news release. But that was not done. Police and Ontario Ministry of Transportation officials also have those capabilities but they also have not provided any of their data.

As an example, if there were only 10 persons speeding at over 50 km/h above the speed limit a year ago, and if that number was raised to 20, that would be a 100 per cent increase. But clearly ten additional speeders is not a lot if we consider the millions of trips taken by drivers during a year. So it would be important to find out what that “200 per cent increase” is based on.

Gorski Consulting has continued to provide factual data on the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on traffic in South-Western Ontario. Traffic studies were recently completed whereby volumes and speeds from previous years were compared to testing that was completed in late March and early April, 2020. Results are available from four test sites as noted below:

  1. Clarke Road north of Fanshawe Park Road.
  2. Hamilton Road West of Gore Road (in front of Hayward YMCA building).
  3. Highbury Ave south of Commissioners Road.
  4. Highway 401 at the Westminster Drive overpass.

Below is a figure of London, Ontario showing the locations of the four sites where testing was completed.

Locations of sites where testing was conducted.

The testing sites provide an important mix of roadway environments. There are two sites involving high speed expressways (Highbury and Highway 401). The Highbury site carries primarily urban traffic. The Highway 401 site carries a large amount of inter-provincial and international traffic. There are also two sites that are urban (Hamilton Rd) and semi-urban (Clarke Rd) arterial roadways.

The table below shows some comparisons between the testing and the sites.

Review of Traffic Volumes

The following sections provide some further explanations of the traffic volumes that were observed as well as general explanations of the testing at each site.

1. Clarke North of Fanshawe

View of the complex S-curve at the Clarke Road site.

The Clarke Road site is a complicated S-curve where testing has been ongoing since the fall of 2009. Thus there is data available from October 8, 2009 which has been included here. Documentations were made of northbound traffic only. A comparison was performed on October 16, 2019, or ten years after, and this was reported in previous Gorski Consulting articles. Finally, the most recent testing was performed on March 27, 2020 which is when the shut down from the Covid-19 pandemic was in effect. Thus we have results from two studies before the effects of the Covid-19 shut down.

The maximum posted speed for the Clarke Road site was 80 km/h. However, because the site is an S-curve the issues of importance revolved around the adherence of traffic to a speed advisory sign. In 2009 the advisory sign contained a “60 km/h” tab. That tab was changed in September 2019 to a “50 km/h” tab. From the testing of October 2009 and 2019 we advised that drivers seemed to be ignoring the advised speed as the average speed was much higher. The latest data from March, 2020 provides further information about how the Covid-19 shut down has affected traffic.

One way of looking at the traffic volume data is to look at the average volume passing the site every 10 minutes. These averages are noted below:

Oct 8-09 = 17.5 vehicles per every 10 minutes.

Oct 16-19 = 43.48 vehicles per every 10 minutes.

Mar 27-20 = 41.88 vehicles per every 10 minutes.

Thus there has been a large increase in traffic volume at the site over the previous 10 years and that increase was reversed between Oct 16-19 and Mar 27-20.

2. Hamilton Road West of Gore Road (Hayward YMCA)

View looking east along Hamilton Rd showing the westbound traffic that would approach the pedestrian crossing. There is a downgrade approaching the camera.

View looking west along the set of cones positioned at 50 metre intervals to document vehicle speeds. There is a downgrade toward the pedestrian crossing in the background.

The Hamilton Road site was examined because of an assignment we received in 2017 involving a pedestrian impact involving a westbound vehicle that occurred near a pedestrian crossing just west of the Hayward YMCA building. Videotaping was performed on September 18, 2017 to determine the average speed of westbound vehicles. Forty minutes of that videotape was analysed. Subsequently, on April 16, 2020 we conducted a similar videotaping session for 1 hour. This subsequent testing occurred during the time that the Covid-19 shut down should have been in effect.

The average number of vehicles travelling westbound every 10 minutes is noted below:

Sept 18-18 = 35.25 vehicles per every 10 minutes.

Apr 16-20 = 64.33 vehicles per every 10 minutes.

Looking at the above averages there is something peculiar. The April 16, 2020 data was obtained during the Covid-19 shut down so the traffic volume should have been substantially less than the volume on September 18, 2017. But the opposite has occurred. All the other sites in our studies have shown this drop in traffic volumes during the Covid-19 testing yet  this site has not. An explanation is needed but it will not be examined at this time.

3. Highbury Ave South of Commissioners Road

View of the overall site on Highbury Ave.

View looking south along Highbury Ave from the overpass at Commissioners Road.

At the Highbury Ave site northbound vehicles were documented in both northbound lanes over a distance of 200 metres. The traffic volumes at 10 minutes intervals from both testing dates are shown below:

Nov 20-19 = 188.33 vehicles per every 10 minutes

Apr 7-20 = 98.67 vehicles per every 10 minutes.

There was an obvious and large drop in traffic volume during the Covid-19 shut down testing as compared to the testing conducted on November 20, 2019. This is in line with what was expected.

4. Highway 401 at Westminster Drive

View from December 2, 2018, showing a video camera positioned on the overpass of the Westminster Drive and pointing at westbound vehicles on Highway 401.

View from October 30, 2018, showing westbound traffic on Highway 401 where three lanes are merged into two at the Westminster Drive overpass.

The results from two, pre-Covid-19 sessions on the Highway 401 site are shown in the above table. The traffic volume data is reported with respect to the median lane only because that is where our focus was at the time of the analysis. The median lane is the one closest to the median. This is the site where three lanes converge into two so the right lane ends and merges with the middle lane.

During the session conducted on March 25, 2020 only the traffic volume was documented and not the vehicle speeds. The session was not prepared for documenting vehicle speeds because this takes considerably more time and effort.

With respect to the median lane, the average 10-minute volumes documented during two pre-Covid-19 sessions are noted below:

Oct 30-18 = 52.38 vehicles per every 10 minutes.

Dec 2-18 = 62.00 vehicles per every 10 minutes.

When comparing the effect of the Covid-19 shut down, there is data available from the traffic volume of all three westbound lanes, not just the median lane. This data is shown below. The data in the table below is taken from 2 hours of videotaping in each of the three sessions.

October 30, 2019 was a Tuesday while December 2, 2018 was a Sunday. It has been well documented that on weekends there is a large decrease in truck traffic and an increase in car and light truck traffic. This is reflected in the data. What should be obvious is that the session on March 25, 2020, which was a Wednesday, showed a large decrease in both heavy truck traffic and light vehicle traffic. Again, this is reflective of the effects of the Covid-19 shut down.

Review of Vehicle Speeds

The table below provides a comparison of the test sites with respect to the posted maximum speeds and the average observed speeds of the vehicles at each site.

As noted earlier, the emphasis of the analysis at the Clarke Road site was with respect to the speed advisory sign and not the posted maximum speed. Here there was a decrease in average speed on October 16, 2019 versus the testing ten years earlier on October 8, 2009.

One has to keep in mind that traffic volume has an effect on speed. When volumes reach critical levels they begin to reduce average speed on single-lane roadways because the travel speed becomes the speed of the slowest vehicle in a line of traffic. So one argument is that the reduced average speed on October 16, 2019 is related to the large increase in traffic volume in comparison to the testing ten years earlier.

There was a decrease in traffic volume between the Covid-19 testing of March 27, 2020 and the pre-Covid-19 testing of October 16, 2019. This could be one possible explanation why the average speed of vehicles increased in the Covid-19 session. This explanation is in line what we have seen that Hamilton Road and Highbury Ave sites.

The speed results at the Highbury site clearly show this result of lower traffic volumes and increased average speed. This was shown in a chart, attached in previous Gorski Consulting article, and reproduced below, showing how the speed of vehicles was increased from the pre-Covid-19 session on November 20, 2019, to the one during the Covid-19 shut down on April 7, 2020

The results from the Hamilton Road site are curious. They do not appear to be consistent with the other data with respect to traffic volume. Yet they are consistent with the observation that during the Covid-19 shut down there has been an increase in vehicle speeds.

The important point to be made is that the traffic volume almost doubled during the Covid-19 session of April 16, 2020 in comparison to the pre-Covid-19 session of September 18, 2017, yet the observed average speed of vehicles was slightly higher during the Covid-19 session. Note that on April 16, 2020 the average speed of observed vehicles was 58.76 km/h versus 58.23 km/h on September 18, 2017. The average speed should have dropped as a result of the higher traffic volume yet the opposite occurred. It also remains a mystery why there were so many more vehicles using this road during the Covid-19 shut down, as this is not what should be expected.

There has been no speed data collected at the Highway 401 site during the Covid-19 shut down. But we have included two previous sessions where speed data was collected at the site. These illustrate the point that the highest speeds of traffic are on this highway. The number of vehicles travelling well above the speed limit at this site put it in a league of its own. It may be necessary for us to conduct some further sessions on Highway 401 to see how the average speeds have changed in the wave of the pandemic.

The table below shows the number of speeding vehicles that have been documented at each of the four sites. Two sets of criteria have been used to select these speeders. A lower criterion involved selecting all those vehicles that were observed to be travelling 20 km/h or more above the posted maximum speed, or the advised speed. A stricter criterion was one where we noted how many vehicles were observed to be travelling at 30 km/h or more above the posted maximum speed, or the advised speed.

Because there were differences in the length of observation and the number of observations at each site the above table does not provide a clear way of comparison between the sites. Thus the next chart, below, breaks this data into percentages of the total of vehicles observed at each site.

This final table now gives us a chance to understand just how many drivers are likely travelling above the speed limit and how that has changed compared to the situation before the Covid-19 pandemic.

For example, at the Clarke Road site, there were more speeders 10 years ago and this fell during the October 19,2019 testing. But when the site was re-tested on March 27, 2020 the number of speeders rose again, such that 31.5 % of vehicles travelled 20 km/h above the advised speed and about 4.3 % travelling at more than 30 km/h above the advised speed. Thus this data would seem to support the conclusion that the number of speeders has increased as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the Hamilton Road site the data is particularly revealing. Even though the traffic volume almost doubled during the Covid-19 shut down testing of April 16, 2020, the number of speeders travelling 20 km/h or more above the speed limit rose from 2.13 % to 4.4 %. Never-the-less the number of speeders observed at this site was negligible. For example not a single vehicle was observed to travelling 30 km/h higher than the speed limit in the September 17, 2017 session and only 0.78 % of vehicles were observed to be travelling higher than this threshold in the April 16, 2020 session.

At the Highbury site there appeared to be a marked increase in the percentage of speeding vehicles. While the numbers travelling at 30 km/h or higher are too small to consider, those vehicles travelling at 20 km/h or higher than the speed limit rose from 1.95 to 9.12 %. That appears to be substantial.

And as stated before, the Highway 401 site shows much higher numbers of speeders even before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Overall, although our data seems to support that the percentage of speeders has increased during this time that the Covid-19 pandemic has been in effect, it is questionable whether these percentages have caused markedly more dangerous roadway environments. It is likely that the percentage of speeders travelling at extreme speeds are very few and small changes in these numbers may have allowed the City, as well as police agencies, to report that there has been a massive increase and a great increase in unsafe conditions has occurred.

The reason why the numbers of “stunt driving” infractions have increased dramatically cannot be fully explained without having more detailed information about police activities. One possibility is that the numbers of major collisions during the Covid-19 pandemic appear to have been reduced sharply as noted in the sharp reduction in the notifications by official news media about the occurrence of those collisions. When police are not tied up dealing with these serious collisions, and possibly many more minor collisions, their time is freed up to pursue the speeders that they previously had  limited time to pursue. If that is the case then those officials reporting these statistics owe it to the public to provide this explanation.

It may also be that the increase in stunt driving at 50 km/h or more over the speed limit may be occurring on selected roads such as expressways. This is more likely as our data already shows that there is a very large percentage of drivers travelling 20 km/h or higher above the speed limit of 100 km/h. It is our observation that, in the distance of Highway 401 between London and Windsor the average speed of vehicles travelling the median (fast) lane was about 120 km/h before the pandemic.

Although no official has yet provided specific data, it seems likely that the number of serious collisions in Southern Ontario have been reduced during the Covid-19 shut down. Yet there appears to be rise in the number of vehicles travelling at excessive speed. This paradox may be an indication of the fact that travel speed alone is not the cause of many collisions. Rather it is the number of potential traffic conflicts that also need to be considered. Thus two isolated vehicles travelling at 130 km/h on Highway 401 pose a risk. But the same vehicles travelling at the same speed in the milieu of other vehicles travelling at 100 km/h pose an additional risk. Such additional risks are not taken into account when the public is told about the risks of collision causation.