David Staples: Highway speed limits a ‘major irritant’ and should be raised, MLA argues

A view of traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway west of Calgary on May 15, 2020, just ahead of the long weekend.A view of traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway west of Calgary on May 15, 2020, just ahead of the long weekend. Photo by Azin Ghaffari /Postmedia, file

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On a clear day most Albertans travel above the posted speed limits on our major divided highways.

Indeed, on the Queen Elizabeth II, commonly known as Highway 2, where the posted speed limit is 110 km/h from Edmonton to Calgary, if you’re going 120 km/h you had best get into the slow lane because many other drivers are going to try to pass you.

At least that’s my experience driving Highway 2 for almost four decades now.

In recognition of our highway driving habits and road conditions, Searle Turton, the United Conservative member from Spruce Grove-Stony Plain, is pushing forward a private member’s bill that would give the government the right to raise speed limits to 120 km/h on major highways.

Turton says he often hears complaints about the low limits. “This is something that is a daily irritant … It’s just something that resonates with everyone right across Alberta. You’re in the middle of nowhere in Alberta on a highway and you’re humming along and you can see a gopher from 25 km away and you’re wondering, ‘Why am I at this speed limit versus a speed limit that is closer to what the Interstates are down in the United States?’ Especially when you’re in the flat prairie land between Edmonton and Lloyd or by Brooks or Didsbury.”


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Of course, not everyone is going to approve of Turton’s efforts. Before I get into concerns around his proposal, let’s hear his argument.

Turton stresses that speed hike wouldn’t come on all highways, just on major divided highways outside of cities with at least four lanes, and that the transportation minister could still lower the speed limit from 120 km/h if there was a major safety concern.

“I tell people this isn’t the Alberta-bahn. This isn’t an unlimited speed limit like they have in Montana or Europe. We’re talking about on some of the widest, safest roads in the province. We’re talking about increasing the speed limit 10 km/h, which is about what someone can almost jog at.”

In his talks with provincial road engineers, Turton says he’s found that Alberta’s major divided highways are built to safely accommodate traffic at 120 km/h.

There’s also a concern that by having such low speed limits, it creates a situation where speed enforcement by the police becomes a “cash cow,” Turton said.

As for critics of higher speed limits, Turton brushes them off. “I know there are some people who would advocate for everyone driving electric golf carts down Highway 2 and going at 20 or 30 km/h per hour.”

Turton also notes that in B.C. they raised speed limits on most major highways in 2014 to 120 km/h.

The situation in B.C. is instructive, both as an inspiration for those who want higher limits but also as a cautionary tale for those who don’t.


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Speed limits were raised in 2014 only after two decades of lobbying led by the group Sense B.C and after extensive research work done by prominent U.S. road safety expert Martin Parker Jr.

Parker has long argued for speed limits based on the good sense of drivers and their habits. Drivers don’t want to get in a collision, so the majority drive safely, even as most will drive faster than the limit on roads where the speed limit is set artificially low. Drivers tend to judge road conditions and stick with the flow of traffic, no matter what the speed limit is.

In a 2003 report Parker found that most drivers on B.C. highways were driving safely but were also driving well over the posted limits. It took some time and much debate for his report to sink in, but in 2014 B.C.’s right-of-centre Liberal government raised limits by as much as 20 km/h on major highways.

But in 2018 the new NDP government lowered the speed limits on about half of the highways where they had been raised, citing a study reporting concerns over an 11 per cent increase in serious traffic accidents in 2016 and 2017.

This set off a round of furious debate, with the pro-120 km/h camp alleging the new study was badly flawed in large because it didn’t take into account uniquely bad weather conditions in 2016 and 2017.

This is an issue where opposing experts make compelling arguments and it’s not always easy for non-experts to figure out who is right or wrong.

I’m open to Turton’s push to raise the limit to 120 km/h, but there’s no way this is happening any time soon. It took 20 years of studying and lobbying to get speed limits changed in B.C. Things might move a bit faster here but not much, either legislatively or on our highways.



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