What follows is the first Slow Ottawa guest post, from Neil Arason, who wrote the book on traffic safety in Canada. The book is No Accident: Eliminating Injury and Death on Canadian Roads (Wilfred Laurier UP, 2014)—a study that was a key inspiration for my own new campaign for the elimination of traffic deaths and serious fatalities in Canada.The impetus for the post below is River Ward councillor Riley Brockington‘s Feb 29 announcement that he had given “notice of motion proposing the city ask the provincial government for permission to use photo radar.” (Yes, I’m afraid we still have to do that in Ontario.) There has been a swift and effective reaction from local safety advocates, including the Safe Streets Ottawa petition and a global perspective from the remarkable Hans Moor. But I thought this also merited a response from Canada’s leading traffic safety expert, so I asked Neil and I owe him a huge debt for the reflections that follow, received in the day that the motion goes to council. My only addition to his expert remarks would be that even if the majority of Canadians didn’t support the use of speed cameras it would still be the ethical choice for governments, since it is rooted in safety science rather than in motorist intuition and myth.
The Case for Automated Speed Enforcement in Ottawa
by Neil Arason
Overall, speed is the number-one road safety problem and is an aggravating factor in the amount of trauma generated in all motor vehicle related crashes. Pedestrians and cyclists are the road users disproportionately put at risk, since most crashes produce blunt forces exceeding the limits of their physical tolerance. The research concludes that a pedestrian is five to eight times more likely to be killed by a vehicle travelling at 50 km/h than by one travelling at 30 km/h. Ultimately, Canada has made no progress in the last decade in reducing trauma numbers to pedestrians and cyclists.
But some will say it’s not all about speed. That may be true, since the list of human conditions that increase crash risk is so long there isn’t room to enumerate them here. Given this complexity, governments have no hope of solving the road safety problem by looking exclusively at drivers. We have over one hundred years of accumulated evidence to show that drivers are imperfect, and that simply asking them to drive better doesn’t work. But we know for certain that reduced speeds cause better safety, acting as insurance to buffer the impacts from all that can and will go wrong.
This is, in part, because faster speeds reduce a driver’s effective field of vision; they exponentially increase stopping distance; exponentially they increase the raw amount of moving energy released in a crash; and they exponentially increase the frequency and magnitude of injury and fatal crashes.
There is abundant proof of this speed/safety correlation. According to Swedish researcher Göran Nilsson, a 5 percent increase in mean speeds leads to roughly a 10 percent increase in all injury accidents (PDF). A meta-review, led by Norwegian researcher Rune Elvik, involving 98 high quality studies, containing 460 estimates of the effect on crashes from speed, concluded there is a strong statistical relationship between speed and road safety (PDF / PDF). When the mean speed of traffic is reduced, the number of accidents and the severity of injuries will almost always go down. When the mean speed of traffic increases, the number of accidents and the severity of injuries will almost always go up.
Alternatively, we can lower speeds. And when we do that, interesting things happen. A twenty year time-series study published in the British Medical Journal found that in London 20 mph (32 km/h) zones were associated with a 41.9 per cent reduction in road casualties, with the largest reductions for children. Now if you invented a drug that caused a 41.9 percent reduction in a disease, you could make quite a lot of money.
So how do we reduce speeds? One way is to automate speed enforcement, because there are simply not enough police officers to meaningfully do the job the old-fashioned way.
Modern methods of speed enforcement have been studied by some well-qualified researchers. Elvik has studied the effect of speed cameras and concluded that based on a number of high quality studies, their use clearly reduces injuries and fatalities to people. A Cochrane review—the gold standard for health research—came to the same conclusion.
Because automated speed enforcement works, it’s used all around the world, including in countries that have better road safety performance than Canada. (There are 16 countries in that group.) But even in our sunny land, automated speed enforcement is used only in Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec.
In these and other places, automated speed enforcement have been implemented in many ways that garner vigorous public support. For instance cameras are deployed in school zones; multiple signs are erected to give advance notice to drivers; and ticket revenues are funnelled into special accounts such as road safety funds and children’s hospitals. Some places, like Canmore, Alberta, have contests to award drivers who follow the correct and safe speed. Regardless, when drivers think there is a good chance they will be caught for breaking the law, the results are much more impressive than when large but infrequent fines are levied. Other research shows that people feel better when they know that justice is served to those who break the law and put others at risk. Speeding is, after all, a very selfish thing for people to do.
Some of those people think that speeding saves time. The reality, however, is that this is overly simplistic thinking—especially when applied to urban areas where traffic delays happen at countless numbers of traffic lights; where speeds are generally lower; and where travel distances are shorter.
In our cities the case for automated speed enforcement looms large. This is because higher speeds make cities feel more dangerous, thereby making people less inclined to walk or cycle. Yet we know that walking and cycling is essential for good human health, and that by substituting driving with these eco-friendly forms of active transport we reduce greenhouse gas emissions; reduce levels of local particulates; reduce levels of ozone; reduce noise; and make the quality of city life better and more enjoyable. Lowered speeds accomplish all of this.
Who, then, is opposing automated speed enforcement? Most of the groups that rally against it represent a vocal minority. And of course some people simply speed because they think it’s fun. The reality is that opinion polls in most developed countries find that the majority of respondents favour automated speed enforcement. A 2007 Ipsos-Reid poll found that 69 percent of Canadians supported photo radar on highways, and 85 percent supported it in school zones. A 2011 survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that a large majority of US drivers believe speed cameras are needed in school zones, construction zones and anyplace where it is dangerous for police officers to stop a vehicle. Another paper shows that speed cameras found majority support in the UK and Australia.
Speed cameras are nothing less than medical devices preventing trauma to people, including children. If we are brave and do the right thing, we will not have any regrets.
Neil Arason is the author of No Accident: Eliminating Injury and Death on Canadian Roads. Wilfrid Laurier University Press; 362 pages. ISBN: 978-1-55458-963-0.