An increase in fatalities, injuries, crashes and insurance claims on some B.C. roads is linked to a 2014 decision by the former provincial government to raise speed limits on the rural highways, according to a new study — a study former transportation minister Todd Stone has described as “borderline irresponsible.”
“Our evaluation found increases in fatalities, injury, and total crashes on the road segments where speed limits were increased,” according to the report, published in a journal called Sustainability. The study was led by Vancouver General Hospital emergency room physician Dr. Jeff Brubacher, and co-authors included road safety engineers at the UBC Okanagan campus.
“There was a marked deterioration in road safety on the affected roads. The number of fatal crashes more than doubled (118 per cent increase) on roads with higher speed limits.”
Speed limits on 1,300 kilometres of provincial highways in rural areas across the province were raised in July 2014. A maximum speed of 120 kilometres per hour on the B.C. roads made them the fastest in Canada.
Earlier this year, a massive multi-vehicle crash near Hope, on the Coquihalla Highway, resulted in more than two dozen people being rushed to hospitals. It was another in a series of crashes on the highway that had safety experts saying the speed limit should be reduced to even lower than what it was in 2014.
Brubacher said “things got a lot worse” on the highways where speed limits increased, especially on the Coquihalla Highway.
“You will recall there was a lot of controversy at the time. Public health experts said ‘don’t do this’ and so did I,” said Brubacher, a road safety researcher who is also an associate professor at the University of British Columbia.
He chairs the British Columbia Road Safety Strategy Research and Data Committee and also sits on the City of Vancouver Traffic Safety Advisory group.
“All of the pro-speed arguments, like the one that people were already driving over the speed limit, have been disproven in this research. The pro-speed advocates who’ve lobbied for speed limit increases have based their view on crappy data at the time. The mistake should be admitted and speed rolled back because, from a safety point of view, it was the wrong decision,” he said.
Brubacher and his UBC co-authors conclude their study by saying that communities across Canada, especially those with slippery winter roads or those where roads traverse mountainous terrain, “should learn from this experience and resist pressure from pro speed advocates to raise speed limits without due consideration to road safety.
“Travel in rural B.C. is particularly hazardous because of a harsh winter climate, mountainous terrain … and the fact that large regions of the province are remote with limited access to post-crash trauma.”
Stone, the minister of transportation at the time of the 2014 changes, said the study and its findings are riddled with problems.
“The findings are highly suspect and, frankly, borderline irresponsible,” he told KTW. “They’re tapping into people’s worries and fears.”
According to Stone, the study’s authors left a lot out when gathering their data.
“This report does not in any way include weather conditions, distracted driving and so forth,” he said. “It’s also concerning that the report relies heavily on fatalities and collisions in percentages.”
For instance, Stone said, the report states fatalities are up 118 per cent in B.C. since highway speed limits were hiked. The margin of error on that figure is listed at up to 225 per cent.
“So it’s possible there was actually a decrease,” Stone said.
“I’m very concerned these authors have presented findings in what appears to be a manner that raises some serious questions.”
The Transportation and Infrastructure Ministry said in a statement that periodic reviews are done and the ministry is now looking at three years of data. It is possible some speed limits will be reduced on sections of highways where speed limits were increased in 2014.
That already began in 2016, when speed limits were rolled back on two sections of roads — Highway 1 from Hope to Cache Creek and Highway 5A from Princeton to Merritt. On other highways, safety features were added, including road signs, rumble strips, speed signs and wildlife warnings.
The ministry statement said that a rural safety and speed review in 2014 resulted in higher driving penalties in addition to the increased speed limits on 33 sections of highways.
The ministry said speed limit changes were made “based on a careful and thorough engineering assessment using speed zoning practices recommended by the Institute of Transportation Engineers and adopted by road authorities throughout North America.”
Stone said he is looking forward to see what the ministry of transportation’s traffic engineers recommend.
“I prefer to rely on the professionals,” he said.
“I worked with them for four years. I think we all should defer to the expertise of the traffic engineers.”
Stone said he thinks a regular report on speed limits from the ministry of transportation could be made public within weeks.
Report co-author Gord Lovegrove, a transportation engineering expert and associate professor at UBC Okanagan, said the government should have acted sooner, given that his research team shared data with the government before study publication.
— with files from Vancouver Sun