Brain on Board

Your brain is your vehicles most important safety feature.

Brain on Board

Your brain is your vehicles most important safety feature.


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A 2007 Transport Canada report on speeding among Canadian drivers revealed that “speeding” means different things to different people. Some drivers define speeding “technically”, which means driving any amount over the speed limit. Other drivers define speeding relative to the speed of traffic, so to speed is to drive faster than the speed of traffic. Finally, some drivers define speeding in more absolute terms, for example, driving 20km/h over the speed limit (Transport Canada 2007). The definition of “speeding” used here by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) is: driving any amount over the posted speed limit or driving too fast for conditions. “Excessive speeding” refers to driving more than 25km/h over the speed limit (TIRF 2007).

Excessive speed is a common cause of crashes on Canadian roads. Every year, 800 Canadians die and another 3,000 are injured in collisions where speed was the major contributing factor. In Canada, speed is a contributing factor in up to 18% of crashes resulting in serious injury or death. Overall, it is estimated that 20% of collisions occur as a result of speeding (TIRF 2007).

Speed not only affects crash risk (an increase in speed of 1% increases the risk of being involved in a crash by 4%), it is also directly related to crash severity (TIRF 2007). Driving at a higher rate of speed increases the total amount of kinetic energy, which in turn increases the risk of severe injury in the event of a collision.

In a recent TIRF survey, 17.2% of driver reported that they would feel comfortable driving the speed limit or faster in heavy rain on a highway if their vehicle had modern safety features, compared to 11% who reported that they would feel comfortable doing this in a vehicle without safety features. This is a concerning result, since safety features cannot be safely relied upon to compensate for excessive speed.

Despite the advanced engineering that goes into the development and production of current safety technology, speeding can have a considerable negative effect on the performance of vehicle safety features in two ways: speed can make severe crashes more likely and make it more difficult for safety features to protect you in the case of a severe crash. To illustrate, noticing a hazard that requires emergency braking two seconds before a collision will give a driver enough time to slam on the brakes, have brake assist engage, and stop in time if the driver is going 50km/h. However, increase the speed to 65km/h, and a collision will be unavoidable even with brake assist.

Safety features have both design and functional boundaries that can be breached once drivers pass certain speed thresholds. For example, safety features like antilock braking systems (ABS)brake assist, and electronic brake-force distribution help make braking safer and more effective. However, speed can make safe braking nearly impossible if an unexpected obstacle appears. Similarly, electronic stability control (ESC) – one of the most talked-about and promising new safety features – may not be able to stabilize a vehicle that, travelling at an unsafe speed, was forced to swerve.

Drivers have an important role to play when it comes to accruing the safety benefits of these new features. Maintaining a safe speed is one way to ensure that when they are needed most, safety features will perform at their best and offer the most protection possible.

It is difficult to get an accurate measurement of how many drivers speed because of ambiguity concerning what constitutes speeding. A 2012 TIRF poll revealed that 22.5% of Canadian drivers report often driving well over the speed limit (TIRF 2012). This number is slightly lower than Transport Canada’s statistics which show that 58% of drivers report speeding on highways; 39% admit to speeding on two-lane highways and country roads; and 13% admit to speeding on residential streets (Transport Canada 2007). The difference among these self-reports is likely attributable to both the way survey questions were asked and the various ways that individual drivers define speeding. For example, TIRF asked specifically how often drivers speed “well over” the speed limit. A driver may not consider driving 10km/h over the speed limit to be “speeding well over the speed limit”, so would not report often doing this. However, given TIRF’s definition of speeding, this driver’s actions would count as often driving over the speed limit. Therefore, the 22.5% of drivers who reported often driving well over the speed limit could be a low estimate.

Speeding behaviour is not isolated to any particular group of drivers, but there are certain characteristics that are associated with chronic excessive speeders:

  • in the youngest age group (16-24 years) (TIRF 2007);
  • male (TIRF 2007);
  • drive more kilometers in a typical month (TIRF 2007);
  • less knowledgeable of the risks associated with speeding (Transport Canada 2007), and;
  • more likely to engage in other dangerous driving behaviour like failing to wear a seatbelt and driving while under the influence of alcohol (Transport Canada 2007).

Exceeding the speed limit at any time is illegal and carries the possibility of penalty. The severity of the penalty increases with the number of km/h over the speed limit a driver is caught driving. In Ontario, for example, types of legal consequences for speeding include a combination of demerit points, fines, insurance repercussions, and sometimes license suspensions. To illustrate, driving 20km/h over the speed limit in Ontario – a speed considered by many to be on the low end of “speeding” – brings with it three demerit points, a $75.00 fine, and usually increased insurance rates for a number of years.

Recent campaigns against street racing have set a new precedent for legal action against excessive speed. Street racers face seven demerit points, up to $10,000 in fines, immediate vehicle impoundment, and licence suspension.

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Courtesy of NHTSA