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If speed limits were appropriate, we wouldn’t mind so much

By David Leyonhjelm - posted Thursday, 16 August 2012


In May 2007, NSW Minister for Community Services and Women, Prue Goward, was caught speeding in a school zone, her second driving offence for the year. Goward reportedly said, “It was extremely careless on my part and like thousands of other drivers I deeply regret it.”

What those thousands of drivers probably regretted was the cost of a fine and having demerit points recorded against their licence. Few of them would actually regret exceeding the speed limit, and most likely Goward didn’t either. Voluntary compliance with speed limits, in the absence of perceived hazards or enforcement, is low.

Opinion surveys confirm there is no culture of compliance. One showed less than 20 per cent of drivers claim to always drive at or under the speed limit. Another found only 41 per cent thought speeding by up to 10 km/hr in a 100 km/hr zone was unacceptable while 38 per cent admitted to speeding by 10-19 km/hr and 21 per cent by 20 km/hr or more.

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With the exception of significant speeding in suburban streets, there is little objection to exceeding the speed limit. Indeed, many drivers regard alerting other drivers to speed traps to be a civic duty.

This is perceived as a problem by the road safety lobby, comprised mainly of public servants and academics who determine policy, which is reflected in the National Road Safety Strategy 2011-2020, issued by the Australian Transport Council (now replaced by the Standing Committee on Transport and Infrastructure), a Council of Australian Governments (COAG) committee made up of the transport and infrastructure Ministers from the States, Territories and Commonwealth.

The Strategy represents their commitment to an agreed set of national road safety goals, objectives and action priorities to reduce fatal and serious injury crashes on Australian roads. Previous versions were largely responsible for such things as lower suburban speed limits, greater use of speed cameras, double demerit periods and school zones. The current one proposes lower speed limits, additional enforcement including point to point and in-car speed monitoring, and increased penalties.

The Strategy aims to “reduce poor road user behaviour” through “behavioural change”, and asserts that “there is a need for a major shift in thinking by governments and the community.” It has a “guiding vision that no person should be killed or seriously injured on Australia’s roads.”

An association between driving speed and the risk of accidents and injuries is well-established within the traffic safety literature. Whether speed is as significant as claimed by the road safety lobby is arguable, but overall it cannot be denied that higher speeds lead to more accidents, injuries and deaths.

The question that follows from this is, why not drastically lower speed limits? Given the aim of zero deaths and injuries, why not reduce the speed limit to something like 20 km/hr so that accidents are either eliminated or only have minor consequences?

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The answer, fairly obviously, is that it would not be unacceptable to the community. There is an implicit assumption in current speed limits that there will be a certain level of deaths and serious injuries, representing the price for convenient travel. The vision of the National Road Safety Strategy is not only unobtainable, it is irrational.

The bureaucrats who set speed limits argue that the process is scientific, taking into account a wide range of factors including the nature of the road, intersections, visibility and so on. But that ignores the fact that they are determined within the context of a trade-off between speed of travel and road accidents. Whether they acknowledge it or not, those bureaucrats are deciding what the trade-off should be. In essence they are deciding how many people should die.

Should they have such a heavy responsibility? Or, put another way, are nameless, unelected bureaucrats the right people to determine the trade-off? Or should it be a process that reflects community values?

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About the Author

David Leyonhjelm is the Liberal Democrat Senator for NSW.

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