BC speed limits and cash grabs

King George speed trap east of Patullo Bridge
King George speed trap east of Patullo Bridge

I’m a cyclist and driver who views most speed and traffic issues through a cyclist’s lens and who generally feels car drivers behave poorly when circumstances call for caution. Also, when it comes to urban neighbourhoods, traffic calmed areas and places like school zones and playgrounds, I have a zero tolerance attitude regarding speeders and distracted drivers. However, there are many areas in BC’s lower mainland where speed zones are poorly conceived, or simply too slow for the area’s driving norms.

Worse, my experience getting a speeding ticket on Christmas Eve tells me that the powers that be plan traffic management to maximize revenue and not to balance expedient movement of people and goods with safety. If I’d received an appropriate ticket, and not a strategized cash grab, I’d accept the consequences and move on. However, I’m fighting it. Further, I can’t remember the last time I had even a fender-bender or moving violation. I’m statistically a very safe driver and what ICBC (our insurance monopoly) likes to call a roadstar.

The ticket

On Christmas Eve I had to take my wife to an eye specialist at Guildford Mall. Since I’m almost never in Surrey, I was totally ignorant of the speed trap that is apparently a fair weather fixture on the Surrey side of the Patullo Bridge. The Trans-Canada highway (Port Mann bridge) would have been a better choice, but as many now do, I thought the Patullo would be a bit slower but would save me the recently implemented highway toll.

The day was dry and overcast. Due to its smallest capacity of three possible crossings to Delta-Surrey and its proximity to the Port Mann, it’s very busy, more so with the new tolls. Coming across the bridge into Surrey I’d guess the flow of traffic was about 65km/hr (already 15km/hr over the posted speed limit). As you come off the bridge into a flat straight away on King George Blvd, the 50km/hr limit (30 mph for Americans reading this) is absurdly slow for this area. People routinely speed up and hit 80km/hr until they head up King George into south Surrey.

A few points are worth making here:

  • Coming off the bridge, King George Blvd is a wide double lane highway with largely industrial and transit facilities recessed deeply away from the road, much like a freeway.
  • Based on how traffic moves in this area, even 60 is too slow, as the traffic can move quite safely at 80 or more, and often does with no speed trap in place.
  • The police know many people will choose Patullo over Trans-Canada to avoid the toll, so keeping the speed limit low ensures a constant source of infraction revenue, as vehicles trying to move through Surrey at a decent pace re-route themselves there.
  • After a bit of research, my understanding is that this speed trap is far more common in nice weather than in cold rain. Wouldn’t running the speed trap in poor conditions and visibility actually be about making things safer? I guess it wouldn’t be as comfortable for the police in bad weather, though, if it’s mostly a cash grab.

Excessive speed or excessively slow limits?

King George speed trap east of Patullo Bridge
King George speed trap east of Patullo Bridge

The speed trap is placed probably 200 or so meters after you come off the bridge. Looking at the diagram above, I was travelling from the west in the right-hand lane. I had an opportunity to move past some traffic in front of me so I changed lanes left, accelerated to pass and was ambushed from the speed trap. Also referring to the diagram above, the red numbers are crash statistics for the past five years. There are very few crashes in the area of the speed trap and the trap is always located on the SE bound side of the road coming off the bridge (again, for easily hitting their revenue quota). If you’ll note, the corner with 408 crashes in that time is at the bottom of a fairly steep hill coming down King George westbound toward the bridge. I could find no evidence that a speed trap is ever placed there, despite the fact that, coming downhill from a higher speed limit zone to a high crash corner would seem to be riskier. It’s also important to note that King George Blvd is at least 60km/hr or more going south from the hill onward. This, despite the fact that the prevalence of pedestrians, businesses, SFU Surrey, Surrey Center mall, tons of condos and the like actually make a slower speed limit more logical than where I was ticketed. In other words, perceptually and statistically, the speed trap is placed in a far less effective location for real safety, while the speed limit is higher where there is a higher concentration of accident risk.

Approaching the Patullo from New Westminster
Approaching the Patullo from New Westminster

Anyway, at the moment I got the ticket, I knew why the traffic felt so sluggish, since most regular drivers in this area are likely used to treating the speed trap like a playground zone, when compared with how fast they were travelling before they hit the bridge. I’d guess that, despite the speed being 50km/hr as drivers hit the Patullo on the New Westminster side, traffic was probably moving at about 80km/hr. In all fairness, on the actual bridge the lanes narrow and traffic probably does slow down a bit. However, it has to and is very self-regulating.

The actual exchange with the RCMP officer was very short. He kindly informed me that I was doing 100km/hr in a 50km/hr zone. He went away, checked me out, and came back with the ticket. Both my wife and I were dumbfounded, as neither of us saw how I could have been going anywhere near 90, let alone 100. I’d only begun accelerating from probably 60 to pass and within 100 meters or so, I was suddenly doing 100? Sorry, but hard to believe. I’d believe I might have gotten as high as 80. Even accepting a 50km/hr limit in this area, that’s 30 over the limit. Raising the limit to 60-80, as it likely should be, means 10-20km over the limit, or somewhere between a $138 and $196 fine.

However, his reading/opinion and the 50km/hr limit meant I was being charged with excessive speeding (40km/hr + over the posted speed limit). This means a $368 fine, a 7-day on-the-spot vehicle impound ($365 paid New Year’s Eve for the tow and storage, and no vehicle for a week) and adds three points to my record. Even just chatting with the tow-truck driver, he was happy to inform us the speed trap is a fixture when it doesn’t rain and, in his opinion, is nothing more than a cash grab. We are lucky my son was available to come get us. So, we waited for over half an hour at the east end of the speed trap for him to get there. Assuming I paid everything, so far we’re at $730+, 7 days without the vehicle and even more absurd costs that will come later.

In the half hour or so I waited for my son, it was like watching a shooting gallery. I saw no one driving in what appeared to be an unsafe manner, yet there were at least four cars being ticketed at any time. They handed out easily 20 tickets while I was there. Multiply that to just an eight hour workday and you’d have nearly 500 tickets. Even the crudest of math gets you well past $60,000 in one eight-hour period, on one day, in one location. That’s a lot of quota-meeting.

What’s the real message?

For most people, particularly those with a very safe record, I’d guess that $730+ and 7 days without their vehicle would probably send the desired message if this was really about safety. While the message I’m taking from this experience is anything but safe driving, I certainly won’t make that mistake again. However, we’re not even halfway to what this will ultimately cost me, if it stands. Thinking that the three points would cost me something prior to my next insurance renewal, I was relieved to find that I’d only pay a Driver Penalty Points (DPP) premium of $175 for four points or more.

However, something I’ve never seen before is the Driver Risk Premium (DRP). When I noticed the little teaser and link to the DRP from the DPP page I’d been on, I found a matrix chart of infractions and the associated cost. With regard to my situation:

If, for example, during the assessment period you have one excessive speeding conviction, you pay $320. As DRP scans your driving record over three years, you’d pay three times $320, for a total of $960.

That’s right, if this stands I’ll also get a bill for $320 in each of the next three years, so this one infraction would cost me nearly $1000, on top of the already spent $730+ and a week without my vehicle. So, a very safe Roadstar will pay a few bucks shy of $1700 over three years for one infraction in a location implemented purposely to generate revenue. Lovely. A risk premium suggests to me that there’s some evidence the offender is actually that.

Again, is the point of this approach that the activity of speeding in certain areas is high risk, or is it really about bringing in revenue? Cha-ching.

Consistency and Logic

Queensborough speed limits
Why is Queensborough completely different?

Considering the points I made about the King George Blvd issues coming off the Patullo into Surrey, you might expect the same approach in similar circumstances. However, this isn’t the case at all. I don’t know whether it’s just easier to hide a cash grab on King George or what else might be at work coming off the Queensborough Bridge. Not only does there not appear to be routine speed traps implemented there, but the cornucopia of illogical and inconsistent speed zones is absolutely baffling.

Referring to the picture above, the area around the Queensborough Mall, Lowe’s and a big casino is circled in red and has seen 360 accidents in the past 5 years. This is statistically similar to the area on King George in Surrey, on a similar road that is actually closer to residential areas. While there is a large sound barrier wall, most activity is recessed far off the four lane road, yet from the time you come off the bridge it’s 80km/hr. So, this is a high crash area with a speed limit 30km/hr higher than King George? On first blush, I’d guess something about a speed trap in this area doesn’t guarantee revenue, since I can’t see any other reason for the huge difference in speed limits, nor enforcement approach.

Again, on the picture above, looking a little further north is really perplexing. As you approach the Queensborough Bridge from Marine Way in Burnaby, in the course of less than 1km, the speed limit goes from 80km/hr down to 60 (with no discernable change in road context), then down to 50 as you merge up onto the bridge. Once on the bridge, the limit is back up to 60 and then, inexplicably, back up to 80 where statistics suggest the risk increases.

The broader you look, the worse it gets

burnaby, new west, delta, surrey
A larger view tells an even more illogical story

The logic becomes even more troubling if you take more of a meta-view of Burnaby, New Westminster, Delta and Surrey. When I went out to Surrey to retrieve my impounded vehicle, I did a reconnaissance speed limit research loop. The red squares, labelled “A” and “B” are the King George map of where I got ticketed and the Queensborough map, respectively. As you might expect, travelling all the way from the Patullo Bridge to where I live in SE Vancouver, the speed is 50km/hr throughout. Yet, travelling on the two major north-south arteries in Delta (Scott Road) and west Surrey (King George Blvd) respectively, the speed limit is 60km/hr. In terms of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, these routes are very busy and very similar to any urban route in Burnaby or Vancouver, yet the speed limit is 10km/hr higher. Let alone suggesting there’s no regional strategy that could set driver expectations appropriately, the limits that do exist seem to have little relationship to the conditions under which they are set.

Finally, I’d like to draw your attention to driving on either side of the Queensborough area I’ve already outlined. Once you leave Vancouver and drive Marine Way to the Queensborough Bridge, you can see that the limit starts at 60km/hr, goes up to 80 on a road that doesn’t change at all, then (somewhat more logically) goes back down to 60 as you hit The Crossing strip malls, then as referenced previously goes back up to 80 and back down to 60 once more. I saw no crash evidence from ICBC crash maps, nor any other reason grounded in reality, why the limit wouldn’t be at least 80km/hr on Marine Way (if not higher, since traffic routinely moves at 90+) all the way. It would be understandable to see a reduction by the strip mall to account for more frequent stoppages and increased traffic congestion. However, at present, from Boundary Road to the Queensborough Bridge, the speed limit inexplicably changes six times. This will sure keep you on your toes, though I doubt it will keep you any safer.

Going south from the Queensborough area, at least the speed limit goes up. It remains 80km/hr through Queensborough and the Annacis Island off-ramps and overpass, goes up to 90 for a very short period through Annacis Island and then hits 100km/hr on the six lane Alex Fraser Bridge. As traffic moves at 100 or more from Queensborough onward, you could easily argue that the width of the road and traffic patterns suggest this might be prudent through the entire area. What still rankles me, though, is why the limits change so frequently and are baselined so randomly all over the place. The BC Government could easily rank roads based on things such as width, lanes, blind spots/visibility, proximity to people and residential and the like and come up with a more standardized approach to speed limits. To have virtually identical roads with differences of as much as 30km/hr depending on which municipality you are in (or where the biggest cash grab can be had) is no way to plan traffic management, nor is it a respectful way to treat taxpayers.

In closing and what’s next

My point with all this is simply thus; that the government, police and their insurance arm should take a prudent approach to speed limit setting and enforcement. Make them relative to the real world flow of traffic and real risk for the context of the road. The safety of people should never be a smoke screen to simply take more money from taxpayers. Further, make infractions like excessive speeding truly excessive and base them on logically set limits. Don’t assess a very safe driver an exorbitant risk premium of $1000 when the driver is statistically of little to no risk.

With regard to fighting my ticket, I’m know I’m up against it. The courts take radar gun readings AND the officer’s opinion of your speed relative to other traffic. As such, simply saying that you couldn’t have been going what the officer says you were, is unlikely to work. As the extra $320/yr for three years is what I’m most opposed to, fighting the charge is the only way I can approach this. When you dispute a moving violation you can fight either the charge or the fine, as you don’t have the flexibility to make cogent arguments about either of them, nor can you wax philosophic about all the background and context, as I have above. The courts are only interested in arguments related to the law as it currently exists. I’ve written the information above largely to think through the issue and to simply get the frustration off my chest. I may mention the absurdity of my driver risk premium, but it’s likely to go nowhere fast.

I’ve received confirmation that my dispute is registered, so I now wait to receive notification of my hearing date from the court. My understanding is that these hearings can be months after the dispute registration due to backlog. I’ve also asked the officer in writing for disclosure of any notes taken when he wrote the ticket, any evidence he has of the speed he says I was going and proof of his certification in the use of radar equipment. Obviously, I’d love it if he didn’t show, but they get paid overtime to sit in a warm courthouse, so that’s unlikely. If he doesn’t supply the requested information in a timely fashion prior to the hearing, I can ask for a dismissal but would likely do no better than a delay. Finally, the burden is upon him to prove my speed, but given that opinion constitutes evidence in speeding, I’d likely be unsuccessful on that front as well.

Lest you think I’m pulling this stuff out of my ass, should you ever find yourself fighting a moving violation, I’d strongly recommend taking a look at Drive Smart BC.

About the guy behind Drive Smart BC:

My background includes 25 years of policing with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, 5 on general duty, 20 on traffic and 10 as a collision analyst responsible to conduct technical investigations of collisions. I retired from policing in 2006 but continue to be active in traffic safety.

The site is run by a former traffic cop who now writes on the topic, and is a wealth of impartial information, mostly in the form of thoughtful, articulate responses to forum posts on various traffic topics.

The final word

Given my (still for the most part) cycling-oriented feelings about speeding, I didn’t always have the warm fuzzies for Sense BC, but watched this video again in a new light after my experience. Needless to say, I’m a convert. Watch it if you haven’t.