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Redefining unacceptable

Conference aims to shift views on speeding and traffic safety

By: Kevin Ma

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Apr 30, 2014 06:00 am

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Albertans have to redefine what is “acceptable” if they want to bring down traffic collision deaths, says Alberta’s top doctor.

James Talbot, Alberta’s chief medical officer, gave the keynote address Monday at the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton as part of the 6th Annual International Conference on Urban Traffic Safety.

The event saw about 260 traffic safety experts and officials from around the world, including St. Albert’s Mayor Nolan Crouse, gather for a week-long discussion on the latest in traffic safety research.

About 332 people die each year in Alberta due to motor vehicle collisions, Talbot told the crowd. That makes vehicles the second highest cause of non-illness related death in Alberta after suicide.

“Why are we prepared to accept the huge loss of economic and human potential those deaths represent?”

Speed kills

The evidence shows that speed kills, Talbot noted. If you hit someone going at 30 kilometres an hour, they have a five per cent chance of dying. Go at 50, and it jumps to 50 per cent.

The problem is perceptual, he argued. “'I can go 20 kilometres above the speed limit because I’m a good driver,” he said, citing a common belief.

We’ve created a culture of speeding, said Ian Johnston, adjunct professor at Australia’s Monash University and advisor to the World Bank on traffic safety. We market our cars based on speed and power, and tolerate drivers who go five to 10 kilometres over the limit – a tolerance that implies such actions are safe.

Yet there’s a flood of evidence to the contrary, said Johnston, who has studied the subject for about 40 years.

“Every time you raise a (speed) limit, casualties go up. Every time you lower a limit, casualties go down,” he said. “There’s no rocket science in that.”

Research by the University of Adelaide suggests that going just five kilometres over the limit in a 60 zone doubles your risk of a collision – the same impact as having a blood-alcohol level of 0.05, Johnston said. Going 20 over the limit raises your risk 30 times.

Enforcement, provided it is justified by education, can significantly reduce speeding, Johnston reported.

Melbourne, Australia brought in lower speed limits, more speed cameras, stiffer fines and lower tolerances for speeding in 2001-2002, for example. They had about 435 traffic deaths in the two years before these changes and 307 in the two after. Neighbouring regions did not make these changes and did not see a similar drop in fatalities.

“If you can reduce the travel speeds even by a few kilometres an hour, you get a massive effect,” Johnston said.

Quebec has found similar results in its research, reports Catherine Berthod, an engineer with Quebec’s Ministry of Transportation. Their studies suggest that every one per cent drop in average speed leads to a four per cent drop in traffic deaths.

“Most drivers do not follow speed limits,” she said. Provincial surveys have found that about 62 per cent of drivers go over 50 when in a 50 zone.

A big reason is road design, she explained. “In North America, we have large streets,” she said. “It doesn’t encourage low speed.”

Her research suggests that the best way to discourage speeding is to match a road’s design to its desired speed.

Residents of Lavaltrie, Que., cut average speeds on an 8,000 car-a-day road through town by about 20 kilometres an hour by adding a multiuse trail, a raised crosswalk and a chicane to it, for example.

Perceptual shift

Talbot called on the audience to work to redefine what’s acceptable in Alberta. Just as Albertans no longer tolerate deaths from measles or polio, Albertans need to think of traffic deaths as unacceptable if we want to see safer roads.

“I think people need to start visualizing the consequences,” Talbot said in an interview – to start thinking about what happens if they hit someone while speeding.

“Is this a safe speed? If I was to strike someone, could it kill them?”

The conference wraps up Friday.


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