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Friday, February 10, 2012

Safe Speed II

Safe speed. “It is a relative term that depends on the skill set of the driver, fitness of the car, and the situation on the road. It’s a general calculation that includes all the inherent elements of these three factors. A safe speed is a rate of speed that can be safely maintained under given conditions by a particular driver in a specific car,” wrote Sobieslaw Zasada (three-time European Champion and winner of 148 car rallies) in his book “Safe Speed.”

It was a car-driving bible for me when I read it at sixteen, just as I got my driver’s license. The next evening after reading the book, I was out on a snow-covered parking lot drifting in my father’s Fiat 126. The enthusiasm for cars was already deeply ingrained in me back then.

In the late seventies, Eastern Europe was still in the grip of the communists. We were hungry for the freedom that owning a car brings, and cars were a passion for us, not just a mode of transportation.

We live in a different world now, in which we leave traffic management to third-rate politicians, and not-too-smart local mandarins. We don’t associate cars with freedom anymore, and treating drivers like cattle is standard fare. For most drivers, the fear of police is a natural feeling they experience when they drive their cars. Most people also believe that this fear is necessary and that without it most drivers would drive like maniacs and kill themselves and others.

Behavioral studies of drivers and experience paint a different picture. In civilized societies the vast majority of drivers when left to themselves display an utmost care and consideration for their own safety and other users of the road. The vast majority of drivers naturally adjust their speed to the conditions present on the road they’re traveling on. We’ve seen this on two occasions over the years, when our Toronto Police were on “work to rule” and didn’t actively enforce the Highway Traffic Act. To my knowledge nobody died as a result.

It is beyond my comprehension why we set our speed limits based on the speed reached by 25% of drivers, and harass the rest of the motoring public with arbitrary speed traps.

The attitude of the police only deepens the problem. I regularly observe buses full of passengers travelling at 120-130 km/h on the 401, that are ignored by police speed traps as if they had some sort of immunity. In contrast, a red Ferrari is probably going to be one of the slowest cars in traffic, because it acts as a magnet for arbitrary police enforcement.

Sports cars or sports sedans that are capable of safely reaching double the speed of a tour bus, are often seen pulled over at the side of the road with a police cruiser behind them, while unsafe old dump trucks with bent axels travel around the city with heavy loads with impunity.

When I drive on the open stretches of Canadian highways, like the Windsor–Montreal 401 corridor, I think about what Mr. Zasada wrote so many years ago. At 110–115 km/h around Kingston you’re going slower than traffic, yet you’re already breaking the law, always fearful of the police instead of watching out for hazards. With a modern sedan in good weather you could safely drive 140–150 km/h and save up to two hours on the Toronto–Montreal trip.

Treating drivers this way only promotes thoughtlessness and lack of consideration for other road users. It rewards bad habits, like following too close and lack of lane discipline. We waste the great potential of wide safe roads and technologically advanced economical cars under the unshakable banner of “safety.” The police always take credit for declining traffic deaths when they promote their “safety” tools like McGuity’s “racing” law. I believe these enforcement methods are not designed with safety in mind but to make life easier for the police, both on the roads and in the court system.

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