Speed Limits in an Age of Fast Cars, Smart Cities, and Autonomous Vehicles

Speed limits always seem to be too low or too high, according to someone, somewhere—and then there’s the issue of people not adhering to them anyway.

Last year BC boosted speed limits along 1,300 kilometres of highway. At up to 120 km/h, BC’s are now the fastest in Canada.

Other provinces are hesitant to follow suit, but I wonder why. BC itself has said that, a year after upping speed limits but as much as 20 km/h, average car speeds remain virtually unchanged. People were already going their own speed—the raised limit just made their actions legal in the eyes of the province.

Less variability in highway speed and higher speeds overall contribute to superior traffic flow as well as reduced collisions, studies show. That first idea, flow, relates to the efficiency of urban driving, which is one of the major components of “smart cities.” When we think of smart cities improving traffic we think of sensor-based parking lots and real-time traffic light adjustments and vehicles that talk to each other.

But when an improvement can be as simple as boosting a speed limit, Internet of Things be damned, why not do it?

In the US, maximum highway speed limits now reach up to 85 mph, which is nearly 140 km/h. In Europe, 130 km/h is a common speed limit. But in Canada, many provinces stop at 110 km/h, some at 100 km/h—and PEI, staggeringly, at just 90 km/h. When someone is speeding illegally in PEI along a stretch of highway, they could actually be well under the speed limit were they on a similar road in the US, Europe, or even BC.

It’s also worth mentioning that, over the past few decades, cars have become both significantly faster and much safer. It’s easy to “speed” when even entry-level compact sedans can roar past 100 km/h without effort. This is a reality that cannot be ignored.

Next year Ontario will become the first province in Canada to allow self-driving cars to be tested on the road. As autonomous vehicles inch their way toward a public consumer reality, we need to make sure our roads are ready for the next evolution in transportation. That should start with the easiest, most obvious changes—one being bringing our speed limits into the 21st century.