Sorry, Officer, no lives saved today

Is there anybody who appreciates OPP cruisers parked on the medians and shoulders of provincial 400-series highways? Is there anybody who feels a great sense of safety and joy upon passing one? It’s for safety, we’re told. However, is it really?

Most of us dislike police presence on the roads, especially our world-class multi-lane highways. Given the artificially low speed limit of 100 km/h when compared with many US states and, indeed, most industrialized countries, it’s no wonder, really. Most of us drive faster and break the law the moment we merge onto a highway. In fact, we typically hit our brakes when we see a police cruiser, and that’s hardly safe. It’s also rare to see the OPP nailing that left lane hog which seems to add insult to injury.

So what exactly are police doing on our fine freeways? Scientifically speaking, not much of anything useful, and often quite to the contrary. The “speed kills” mantra, which has been used to justify highly paid OPP traffic patrolmen handing out expensive, painful and humiliating speeding citations on our roads, was conceived in the early 70s during the oil embargo era. Many countries reduced freeway speed limits to save fuel and simultaneously observed lowered fatality rates. That time also coincided with other factors including the growing adoption of mandatory seat-belts, which undisputedly saved many lives and with global recession and significantly reduced travels caused by quadrupling of oil prices by OPEC.

Al Gullon from Ottawa, a Traffic Safety expert and former Transport officer for the Canadian Armed Forces, has spent a good part of his life travelling and studying traffic patterns and fatality rates in Canada, Europe and around the world. He says countries which did not reduce speed limits also saw dramatic drops in fatalities during the 1970s. Gullon says, ”scientifically speaking, that which happened in all countries, cannot be attributed to that which occurred in only some of them”. In other words, if reduced speed limits were the main cause of lower fatality rates, wouldn’t countries which did not bring their speeds down observe a continuing high crash and fatality rate? Perhaps reduced speeds had nothing to do with saving lives after all?

In search for the truth, Gullon recounts, “I just followed the sign saying ‘Police next exit’.” The Ottawa resident found himself in Germany talking to police officers responsible for the unlimited-speed sections of the world-famous Autobahn. What he heard from the officers confirmed his many years of research: that speed, contrary to the popular opinion influenced by the “speed kills” industry, has no impact on freeway safety. Low autobahn fatality rates, ranking better than the US and Canada averages, seem to confirm that.

“So what causes accidents?” Gullon asked and before the last word was out of his mouth he heard in a loud tone of voice: “Inattention!” And that’s from none other than the autobahn polizei, who see vehicles orderly “flying by” their unmarked cruisers at well over 200 km/h at times! Given proper lane discipline, Gullon was told by the German police, cars can travel as fast as they want as long as the driver pays full and undivided attention and remains entirely focused on the road ahead. Not surprisingly, high speeds subconsciously require full concentration and a firm grip on the steering wheel. Low velocities, on the other hand (such as those thoughtlessly suggested by the 400-series speed limit signs), invite complacency and boredom which can cause distraction, possibly resulting in a crash.

''We [...] have absolutely no problem with higher speeds. We've discussed it often, and very often the discussion was that it was unsafe. But our statistics show this is not the case,” Dr Ulrich Mellinghoff, a German safety expert confirms.

The state of Montana also did not post numerical speed limits from 1994 to 1999 on its highways. Following a legal turmoil involving the vagueness of the “reasonable and prudent” speed limit which existed at the time, the state was forced to impose a general speed limit of 120 km/h (75 mph) in 2000. If the proponents of “speed kills” were right, one would expect the reduced speed limit would have resulted in less fatalities. So what happened to the fatality rate? Absolutely nothing. The numbers remained unchanged and fluctuated year-to-year as they’ve done before.

If “speed kills,” as our home-grown “highway safety experts” suggest, due to the frequently cited laws of physics, stopping distances and exponentially magnified impact forces, the concept of unlimited roads in Montana or the German Autobahn would never work. Yet it has worked and still does; and has for decades in the case of Germany, with insultingly low fatality rates.

Our public authorities seem reluctant to acknowledge that fact, while happily ticketing innocent drivers. Inconvenient truth?

So, sorry speed trap operating officer, odds are you did not save anybody’s life today. In fact you likely pulled over a reasonable driver travelling at a safe speed. Montana used to call them “reasonable and prudent” speeds for a reason; those words were to remind drivers to carefully choose their optimal travel speed by themselves. And so they did with success, just like the Germans do every day, while carefully watching the vehicles in front of them, rather than the police cruises hidden on either side of the road. So not only have you not saved anyone, you have inflicted financial pain on yet another driver whose only sin was to drive at a “reasonable and prudent speed” that unfortunately does not match the one posted on our speed limit sign.

Chris Klimek from Oshawa, Ontario is the founder of - group which demands

increasing Ontario 400-series highway speed limit to globally recognized 120 and 130 km/h.