Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The perception of speed

Photo taken @ Clark and East Broadway while
waiting at a bus stop as cars race by
As someone how commutes by foot and bike a lot, I have become quite aware of my surroundings while getting around town. I've written about it before, how travelling in these ways gives you a more intimate experience of the world going by around you. I get to experience nature up close and personal, interact with other people walking or riding bikes, and enjoy being out in the open air getting fresh air and exercise. But there's something else I get to experience, and that's the motor vehicles racing along the roadways at high speeds. Walking or riding in my community has made me much more aware of fast moving cars, and as such, I have grown to be hesitant around the busier streets in my neighbourhood, especially when I'm with my children.

While being aware and hesitant at major roadways is a good thing to teach children, my experiences have led me to believe that the people in these fast moving vehicles don't actually realize how terrifying it is for the pedestrians and cyclists around them. The sound of a speeding car, revving its engine to make the next traffic light has actually startled my children on several occasions, causing them to jump and hold my hand a little tighter. I am glad to know my children can recognize vehicular danger through the sense of sound, but that doesn't change the danger of being near these speeding vehicles.

As I said, in my opinion, most motorists don't perceive their excesses in speed when behind the wheel. After reading through some studies done throughout the USA, I found some startling findings. One study found that for younger drivers, mainly men, were less likely to perceive that safety is threatened by driving 10m/h (16km/h) above the posted speed limit. The perceived threat was noted to increase as the demographic increased in age, going down to about 5m/h (8km/h) above the posted speed limit.

Those numbers may seem small, but let's think about that for a moment. Most residential areas in Canada have an un-posted speed limit of 50km/h. If the average driver feel it's okay to drive 8-16km/h over the speed limit, that would mean that on a quiet residential road, likely full of young children, many drivers are actually moving at speeds between 55-65km/h. I now know from past research, as posted in One small idea, very big reward, that reducing the speed limit to 30 km/h from 50km/h could reduce a pedestrian's chances of dying if hit by a car from 85% to 5%.

While I don't like perpetuating fear of everything around us, preferring that my children learn street smarts so they are better prepared for the days when I am not with them for every walk to and from school, knowing that many drivers don't perceive that their speeds are unsafe is more than a little unnerving. But there is hope. Many cities worldwide are looking at reducing speed down to 30km/h in more densely populated areas. Here in BC, the City of Victoria is currently pushing through an initiative in their city and provincially to reduce speeds in residential areas from the default 50km/h to 40km/h. While there will be push back, a simple reduction of speed should inherently cause drivers to slow down, increasing safety for pedestrians, including children and seniors.

For now, I'll continue to avoid major roads where revving engines and speeding drivers are prevalent. I will also try to impress upon the drivers I know that while getting through the next light, or getting to their destinations 5 minutes sooner may seem like a good idea, it's also important to keep in mind that while their perception of the speed being travelled doesn't seem like a big deal to them sitting within their vehicle, the people walking or riding bikes around them feel very differently. No one wants to purposely cause harm or fear to their fellow citizens, and the best way to do that is consider how our actions are perceived, even if it means driving at the speed limit.

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