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How fast is too fast? Here’s how to tell

Police will typically issue tickets if drivers exceed the speed limit by 20 per cent or more.  Photograph by: LYLE STAFFORD, Times Colonist

Police will typically issue tickets if drivers exceed the speed limit by 20 per cent or more. Photograph by: LYLE STAFFORD, Times Colonist

By Steve Wallace, Times Colonist, Oct 17th 2013

How fast is too fast? How slow is too slow?

Canadian vehicle speed culture is well-entrenched and well-defined by regulators, enforcement agents, licensing authorities and drivers. Canadians, by and large, view speed-limit laws as merely a guide rather than an absolute.

How has the attitude developed and been accepted by virtually everyone in society? Here is my best attempt to explain it.

Speeding is tolerated from the very beginning of a new driver’s learning experience. Driving examiners in most jurisdictions are told to allow a speed percentage tolerance on road tests. A new driver will only be failed on a road test if a speed of 20 per cent over the posted speed is reached during the driving test. (60 kilometres per hour in a 50 km/h zone, for example, or 35 km/h in a 30 km/h school zone.)

A new driver will not be failed for doing a speed more or less than 20 per cent of the posted speed limit, unless the practice is consistent throughout the road test, or the lower speed is deemed to be holding up following traffic.

The police everywhere have a built-in tolerance for speeders. Judges have given them a very clear message when it comes to speed enforcement. They do not want their courtrooms clogged with marginal speeding-infraction cases. With the exception of school and playground zones, there are very few, if any, single-digit above-the-limit speeding tickets issued. This is probably a very good pragmatic practice, given the inaccuracies of speedometer readings. Many drivers are surprised to discover the differences in speedometer readings when they change from summer to winter tires. There have been many instances of faulty speedometer readings on brand-new vehicles.

Highway patrol officers have a tolerance for speed enforcement. This tolerance is not always the same. The above-the-speed-limit allowance on a rainy, snowy or icy road will be much less than on a clear, dry road in summer. There may be situations where going the speed limit, when road conditions are treacherous, will get the driver a speeding ticket for proceeding at a speed “too fast for conditions,” particularly when such action results in a crash.

When police set up a radar trap, they will generally decide among themselves what speed tolerance will be allowed. Drivers who go beyond that tolerance, usually about the 20 per cent threshold, will most certainly get a “prize.”

Despite all of the above, there is another universal rule of speed, namely: The laws of physics trump the laws of man every time.

Smart drivers use the speed tolerance and the laws of physics to their advantage. They travel at the “speed of traffic” in order to reduce the number of times they are overtaken or the instances where they pass other vehicles. By reducing the “action” around their vehicle, many professional drivers are able to drive millions of kilometres without a crash or incident.

Safe and skilful drivers choose a speed that matches the road and traffic conditions. They will often travel in an unofficial convoy, letting the lead driver do most of the work.

The average driver can decide on a safe speed by doing the following. Choose a speed that is well within the enforcement tolerance. Count the number of vehicles that pass you and the number you pass. When the ratio of vehicles you pass and those passing you is about the same, you have reached an acceptable “happy medium.” There will most certainly be less action around your vehicle. When there are fewer vehicles in close proximity to your vehicle, whatever the speed, there is less chance of a mishap.

Canadian speed culture involves tolerance — live with it, and use it to your advantage.


Steve Wallace is the owner of Joan Wallace Driving School on Vancouver Island and in the Central Interior of B.C. He is the former Western Canadian vice-president of the Driving Schools Association of the Americas, a registered B.C. teacher and a graduate of the University of Manitoba.





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