Keith Gerein: As speed limits come down in Edmonton, expect to see election rhetoric ramp up

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Summer, it is said, is a time to slow down, relax and take it easy.

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Usually that’s a recommended state of mind, but as of Aug. 6, it will be a required state of law in Edmonton — at least when it comes to driving.

That’s when a new citywide speed limit of 40 km/h comes into effect for most residential and Downtown roads.

Still, even though city council has made the decision, you can sense there will be no slowdown in the debate, especially as Edmonton moves closer to a municipal election.

Already some candidates are drawing attention to the change to serve personal political interests. Expect to hear an increasing lack of subtlety, with 40 km/h described as either an insufficient half-measure, or another example of the nanny state run amok to new extremes.

The politics and psychology of traffic safety have always been a fascination to me, in part because, aside from politicians, it is often hard to put public sentiments into silos (though I will try to do that).

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Like bike lanes and masks, speed limits seem to be treated as something of a proxy fight in the larger culture war, yet I tend to see a lot more hypocrisy between people’s rhetoric and actions.

I think most of us probably know folks like this. People who will install safety bars for their ailing parents and do almost anything to keep their children from harm, but then transform into aggressive, impatient maniacs when behind the wheel.

People who demand to live in quiet, safe, walkable neighbourhoods, but aren’t so respectful of other people’s desire for the same thing.

That said, in general, those who oppose lower speed limits tend to place a great value on mobility and access. This is important, they say, for personal quality of life but also for the economy that depends on the rapid flow of goods and services. In simple terms, time is money.

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Folks in this camp suggest most drivers are capable of judging for themselves what safe driving looks like depending on congestion, road design, conditions, etc., and shouldn’t be held back by arbitrary limits when circumstances make it unnecessary. As such, this is a freedom issue, they say, not to mention a cash machine for government.

As well, many note that fatal and serious injury collisions have been declining in Edmonton in recent years without wholesale speed limit reductions.

In the safety camp, the pivotal factor is avoidance of deaths and debilitating injures, but proponents also value the mental well-being that comes from reduced traffic risks.

Like the mobility camp, they relate these to economic benefits, arguing that employers and employees want to live in safe, attractive communities with vibrant street life and neighbourhood businesses.

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In addition, this camp argues the city has reduced carnage precisely because of strategic safety interventions. A change to speed limits is the next natural step, and would add such minimal time to most trips that most people wouldn’t even notice.

Proponents can also boast some momentum, since several municipalities around the country have been implementing 40 km/h limits on a permanent or trial basis, including Calgary, St. Albert, various cities in Ontario and even Whitehorse. Others are contemplating it.

Anyway, those are the main arguments of both sides, from what I can gather. However, you’ll remember what I said earlier about how difficult it is to put people into silos on this issue. That’s because I get the strong sense many Edmontonians see merit in both camps, have fluid ideas of what constitutes balance between regulation and freedom, and are guilty of some inconsistency around rules they want for others more than themselves.

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This is where evidence needs to come to the fore, said Gordon Lovegrove, engineering researcher at the University of British Columbia Okanagan.

In this vein, the argument from the mobility/freedom camp that most quickly falls apart is the one in which drivers believe they can consistently judge for themselves what’s responsible behavior.

How many of us know, for example, that an average-sized car travelling at 50 km/h in good conditions can take about 53 metres to stop — this includes driver reaction and braking distance — whereas the same car travelling at 40 km/h traverses 36 metres? (Some studies have it a bit higher or lower).

How many know, as Lovegrove notes, that pedestrian collisions at 50 km/h are more often fatal than not.

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Such numbers show the value of lowering the limit on residential and pedestrian-heavy roads, in part to save us from our hypocritical instincts and self-delusions about safe we really are as motorists.

To add to that evidence, the city must make good on its plans to study the effects the of the speed limit change — including whether it leads to a predicted 10 per cent reduction in serious injury collisions, or whether more physical and visual cues might be required.

But the evidence that I think may really move the needle lies in calculations of cost, particularly when it comes to reduced hospital trips, court cases and insurance.

If government can demonstrate that reduced speeds might lead to reduced bills and taxes, I suspect we’ll see more Edmontonians willing to take it easy on both roads and rhetoric.

kgerein@postmedia.com

twitter.com/keithgerein

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