Early each year we often see media stories about how many people were killed in road accidents over the holiday season and whether this is higher or lower than previous years.
The source of these stories is usually one of the government agencies responsible for road traffic issues, such as the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority, and invariably includes claims about excess speed, idiotic drivers and the obvious need for further measures to compel drivers to slow down.
The tone is typically patronising. If only drivers would be more responsible or, like naughty children who refuse to behave, they must be caught and punished. There are often lectures by police officers who tell us it’s all for our own good, while governments run advertisements trying to frighten us into slowing down with gory pictures of accidents or warnings of lifelong injuries.
There are two problems with all this. One is that speed is nowhere near the cause of road casualties it is made out to be. Second, the overwhelming majority of drivers know this and, through their actions, indicate they do not believe exceeding the speed limit is inherently dangerous, that they are at fault when they do so, or that enforcement measures are merited.
Speed limits are much the same as they were 40 years ago, yet road traffic deaths have declined dramatically. Just in the last 20 years they have approximately halved, notwithstanding increases in car numbers and distances travelled.
The reasons for this decline have little to do with speeds, which mostly go up whenever enforcement is not apparent, but to improvements in vehicle safety (eg brakes, tyres, airbags, seat belts and electronic stability control) plus better roads.
This is confirmed by the fact that much larger declines occurred in many other countries over the same period, including some where speed limits are higher than in Australia. That includes Germany and the UK, which also have fewer fatalities per 100,000 people.
The RTA claims speed is a key factor in over 40% of road deaths, but the data behind this is very flimsy. Speed is often blamed by accident investigators whenever an alternative explanation is not apparent, even when lone drivers commit suicide by crashing into a tree at high speed.
Other countries tell a different story. Official British road casualty statistics for 2006 show "exceeding speed limit" was a contributory factor in 5% of all casualty crashes (14% of all fatal crashes), and that "travelling too fast for conditions" was a contributory factor in 11% of all casualty crashes (18% of all fatal crashes).
Similar results were found in a study published in 2008 by the US National Highway Safety Traffic Administration. Based on early and detailed post-accident investigations of 5,471 accidents, it concluded that driving too fast for conditions or too fast for a curve accounted for just 13.3% of them. (More than a third of accidents were found to be related to an intersection.)
In the absence of a speed camera or other enforcement, probably three-quarters of all Australian drivers would exceed the speed limit when they felt it was safe to do so. Anecdotally, that includes most off-duty police officers as well as the journalists who write the stories discussing lack of compliance with speed limits. At certain times, a car crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge would hold up traffic if it travelled below the speed limit.
This has led to enormous cynicism about the enforcement of speed limits and their contribution to state government budgets. There is something inherently absurd about being told that travelling at 5 km/hr above the limit is dangerous while it is safe at 5 km/hr below it.
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