Motor Mouth: Speed versus safety — is faster always worse?

Last week’s lament that the European Union has voted to implement mandatory speed limiters on all cars produced after 2022 certainly started a dust up in Driving’s comment section. Fortunately, unlike so many forum discussions — anything discussing Tesla comes to mind — the debate of whether preventing cars from ever exceeding speed limits is a good idea was thankfully (amazingly?) devoid of the name calling too typical of online discourse these days. And with the more recent news that Volvo will be voluntarily restricting the speed of all its new cars, perhaps a refresher on the realities of speed and safety is warranted.

Is the problem simple physics?

Grade 10 physics, as more than one reader pointed out, would seem to dictate that speed will always be enemy Number One. In fact, I don’t think you really need to understand even Grade 10 physics at all to understand that the faster two bodies collide, the greater the impact will be. More importantly, that the force — more accurately, the kinetic energy transferred — rises with the square (double the speed and the severity of the crash is four times worse) of velocity would seem to lend credence to the EU’s recent preoccupation with speed.

Is it statistical?

As Mark Twain admonished, statistics don’t lie but liars use statistics. And, Lord, are there ever a lot of liarsliars-pants-on-fire trumpeting automotive safety statistics. The greatest lie ever told in automotive safety circles is that America’s reduction of highway speed from 65 to 55 miles per hour — initially a fuel conservation edict — saved lives.

In fact, fewer people did actually perish in car crashes after the reduction from 65. What those let’s-call-them-statisticians conveniently omitted — and this is prime example of how liars use statistics — is that the rate of automotive fatalities had been falling for decades, mainly because collision technology, such as crumple zones, airbags and the like, had evolved. By one estimate, the modern automobile transmits less than one-tenth of the impact of a 1950s sedan in a collision of the same speed: In other words, no matter how fast we drive, fewer of us would die in a modern Mercedes-Benz than a Buick Roadmaster of yore.

The real issue, however, is that automobile safety statistics are impossibly complicated. For every study that claims increased speeds result in markedly more road fatalities, there’s another with more inconclusive results. The reason for the discrepancies can be the source: An agency like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, for instance, represents insurance companies, and has a vested interest in both lower speed limits and lowering vehicle repair payouts.

Speed differentials, many studies show, play a more important role than outright velocity. And pedestrians, of course, are much more affected by even small changes in collision speed than passengers. In the end, there’s little question that speed contributes to the danger of driving an automobile: Whether it is the important factor, however, is very much open to discussion. In fact, parsing worldwide fatality statistics, the big question I always have is …

Is it somehow psychological?

Why does Europe have 20 times fewer traffic fatalities per 100,000 motor vehicles compared with Africa? More pointedly, at least for this discussion of speed versus safety, how can Germany — poster child for pedal-to-the-metal motoring — have statistically fewer (as in, fatalities per billion kilometres driven) automotive deaths than nanny-state Canada? Our cars are as safe, our roads straighter and traffic is most certainly less dense. Yet we splatter ourselves all over the highway about 20 per cent more frequently than in Germany.

Here’s another surprising little factoid: According to the European Traffic Safety Council — the very people who voted to impose these speed limiters mentioned last week — 67 per cent of German road deaths occurred on motorways without a speed limit and 33 per cent on stretches with a permanent limit. Why that’s important is the fact that exactly 67 per cent of German motorways have no limits and 33 per cent do. In other words, according to the ETSC — again, the very people recommending the need for mandatory speed limiters for all cars — in Germany at least, the speed limit governing the road you’re travelling has absolutely nothing to do with your likelihood to die.

Is it, like all things, just political?

If German statistics put lie to the direct relationship between speed and statistic, then why would its mandarins vote for such a draconian proposition? More to the point, why would Germans want tighter speed restrictions when it is precisely those greater speeds that forced Mercedes-Benz et al to evolve into the best automobiles in the world?

My guess is progressive politics. Environmentalists have been trying — to little effect — to link high speeds with greater fuel consumption/emissions production. The movement has gained little traction. Draw a connection between those same high speeds and mangled babies, and — pardon my cynicism — you have a winning public relations campaign.

Europe also faces another unique problem: Electric vehicles are not at their best at high speeds. Oh, a Tesla P100D can “ludicrous” off the line with the best of ‘em, but at the speeds that Germans often autobahn, electrons simply can’t keep up. With many European manufacturers — Volkswagen, Porsche and Volvo — betting so big on batteries, losing sales to turbocharged AMGs based on their autobahn abilities will hurt their EV quotas.

And finally, I’ll leave you with a philosophical thought

While discussing the connection between speed and safety is always a laudable argument, the choosing of one particular speed limit or another — as many do — would seem an arbitrary process. Indeed, it’s important to understand that speed limits have always been an uncomfortable compromise between the convenience of the many versus the death of the few.

Returning to America’s great 55-versus-65 debate — or British Columbia’s recent sparring over 110-versus-100 km/h speed limits — the discourse literally becomes one of how many road fatalities one is willing to accept. Essentially, what proponents of 55 are saying is, “I can live with the 30,000 fatalities that I know will occur if we keep the speed limit at 55, but I am outraged at the 34,000 I think will occur if we let people drive 65.” Cynical as that may seem, it’s the (not so) grand bargain that we’ve struck.

Indeed, the only way to completely eliminate traffic deaths would be to make all cars fully autonomous — and even then, they’d probably have to be limited to impossibly turtle-like speeds. And, shades of last week’s Motor Mouth, if that isn’t an infringement of civil liberties, I don’t know what is.

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