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Is faster really better when it comes to driving?

By: Hannah Barrett, Robyn Robertson & Mavis Johnson

There’s something about speed that grabs our attention.

We often see speeding idealized in movies, video games and ad campaigns. These images almost always come with fine print and a disclaimer indicating stunts were performed by professional drivers on a closed course, and urging viewers not to try this at home. But the fine print is not the message that grabs our attention because those high-speed stunts are so well-choreographed, they appear almost easy.

The truth is they aren’t because as speed increases so does crash risk — for drivers, their passengers and other road users. Those stunts involve extensive training, timing, practice, fail-safes, safety precautions and a highly controlled environment; quite unlike the typical road environment which can be unpredictable at the best of times. But, because we see this risk-taking so often in the movies, we mistakenly believe we have more control on the road and tend to become over-confident drivers as a result.

Despite its glamorization, speed is a leading cause of road crashes worldwide and a contributing factor in 1 in 4 fatal crashes in Canada. Even though we implicitly know we cannot speed and avoid injuries like popular movie characters and game avatars, still, 23% of Canadians admitted to driving well over the speed limit in 2019, 4% of which reported doing so very often. This translates into roughly 6 million Canadians driving well over the limit, and 1 million doing so very often. Unfortunately, the reasons drivers choose to speed are based on misperceptions that simply aren’t true.

With days getting shorter, and colder, wetter weather on the horizon, now is the time to take stock of our driving habits and pay attention to speed. Maintaining a safe distance between ourselves and other vehicles, and leaving ourselves more time and space to avoid a collision when the unexpected happens on the road, can help everyone get home safely every day.

The laws of physics still apply to speeding vehicles

Even if science was your least favourite high school subject, you probably have a vague recollection of Newton’s laws of physics. One important law is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This law also applies to vehicles travelling on the road. In the three-quarters of a second it takes drivers to identify a hazard and simply decide how to react, a vehicle travelling at 50 km/h covers 10 metres (33 feet) or about two vehicle lengths before the driver even starts to apply the brakes. This means speeding leaves drivers less time and distance to react to avoid collisions.

Another truth from Newton’s laws is the law of motion which tells us force is equal to mass multiplied by acceleration. Basically, speeding increases the total amount of kinetic energy a vehicle must absorb at the point of impact. Two vehicles travelling at 60km/hr collide with an impact speed of 120km/hr, resulting in more severe injuries.

In other words, speed is a key factor in both crash occurrence and severity. High speeds reduce the ability of drivers to stop in time, it reduces the maneuverability of the vehicle to avoid a crash, limits drivers’ ability to safely negotiate curves and corners, and causes them to misjudge gaps or distance between vehicles.

So while it may not seem risky to drive only 10 km/hr above the speed limit, in fact it more than doubles crash risk. As for driving 20 km/hr above the speed limit? That increases crash risk up to six times. Yet, according to self-reported survey data, 3 out of 5 Ontario drivers said they feel comfortable driving at speeds above the posted limit of 100 km/hr, suggesting the effects on crash risk are not well-recognized. In many instances, drivers speed because they mistakenly believe they will make up time when they are late, or get to their destination faster. But the exceptionally small timesavings is not worth the increase in speed. Just because we feel comfortable driving above the posted speed limit, doesn’t mean it is safe – no matter how good a driver you think you are. And crash risk aside, most of us can attest to the fact speeding drivers still find themselves waiting at the same red light as those of us sticking to the speed limit. The costs of increased risk and gas consumption are in no way are equivalent to a few seconds saved.

The road environment is unpredictable

You may find yourself driving the same route most days which can lead to some degree of complacency. However, even though your route is constant, elements along that route are unpredictable. On any given day you have probably encountered inattentive or erratic drivers on their phone, construction zones, delivery vehicles parked roadside, cyclists and pedestrians (i.e., vulnerable road users). In these instances, drivers need time to take action and avoid a crash and speeding reduces our ability to safely navigate these scenarios. The difference between a crash and a near-miss is measured in microseconds and millimetres, and faster speeds can turn a near-miss into a crash in the blink of an eye. Just like our favourite racing video games, speeding influences the driver’s ability to control their vehicle and take turns and curves safely. We find ourselves in need of those extra ‘lives’ offered through gaming, but we all know that’s not an option in real life.

It’s not just the speeding driver at risk

Drivers who speed create significant risk for other road users. In fact, according to TIRF’s National Fatality Database, 37% of victims in speed-related fatal collisions in 2016 are not the speeding driver. More than one in six (17.2%) of fatally injured vulnerable road users died in a crash involving a speeding driver.

A common reason drivers speed is the misperception it will substantially reduce the amount of time it takes to arrive at their destination. But this isn’t the case. For example, a driver who needs to get to a destination 40 km away and the speed limit is 70 km/h, then the journey will take 34 minutes. If the driver speeds and drives 80 km/h, then they will get to their destination in 30 minutes. But by saving four minutes of their time, drivers speeding at 80 km/h increase their crash risk by at least 60%. Is that worth it? Will those four minutes make a difference to your day in the way you think? Because the reality is attempting to save those 4 minutes simply makes it more likely that you (or someone else) will not make it to their destination at all.

Speeding in an attempt to “save time” comes at a very high cost. If you’re late when you leave your house, it’s highly likely you are going to be late to your destination; driving faster doesn’t change that in any way that counts. And it decreases not only your safety but the safety of all family members, friends, colleagues and community members sharing the road with you.

In addition to the immense personal costs in the form of injuries and fatalities, there are also significant financial costs for speeding as well. Drivers who don’t crash still face fines and demerits (and even impoundment) which can bring higher insurance premiums as well as higher fuel costs. Crash involvement also includes the cost of repairs, potential licence suspension, insurance deductibles, and in some cases, court costs. Which brings us back to the question: Is faster really better when it comes to driving?

Choose safety over speed

So, what can we do to reduce speeding?

  • Plan accordingly. Drivers should always schedule enough time to arrive at their destination. By planning ahead, the desire to speed to make it on time decreases.
  • If you are late, accept it before you leave the house. Sometimes being late is inevitable, and in these instances simply acknowledging (or better yet telling the person you are meeting) you will be late can relieve the pressure you feel to get there on time.
  • Prioritize safety. Choose safety over speed, it is more important to arrive safely at your destination (and perhaps late) than to speed and risk hurting yourself or others. Remember, unlike in video games and movies, the roads we drive on are not closed courses and none of us are professional race car, or stunt, drivers.

Obeying speed limits maximizes the protection offered by vehicle safety features and ensure safer roads for all. Remember, the goal isn’t just to get there, it’s to get there safely, and we can safely agree that no one is willing to die trying to reach their destination.

Our thanks to our newest donors, Consolidated Collision Services (CCS) and RSA Canada. CCS’s donation of $5 to TIRF for each RSA Canada auto repair over three years supports ongoing educational resource development and research. More…

#MySafeRoadHome blog co-authors: Hannah Barrett, TIRF Research Associate, Robyn Robertson, TIRF President & CEO, and Mavis Johnson, TIRF Community Development Advisor, work collaboratively as co-authors. Hannah is a criminologist and specializes in alcohol ignition interlock programs, wildlife-vehicle collisions, and impaired driving countermeasures.  Robyn is the author of TIRF’s knowledge translation model, is well-versed in implementation strategies and operational practices across several sectors. To date, the DIAD program has been delivered to over 60,000 youth and workers across North America. Mavis is a road safety specialist with over 48 years of experience who has been recognized internationally for her work.

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Source documents and resources:

The Role of Speeding in Road Crashes, Traffic Injury Research Foundation, October 2020

Sharing the Road: Key Factors in Fatal Crashes in Canada, Traffic Injury Research Foundation, May 2018

Traffic Injury Research Foundation Fatality Database

Young and New Driver Resource Centre, The Issues – Speeding

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