Excessive speed is involved in at least one-third of fatal accidents according
to a NSW
Road Traffic Authority report. Sickened by the needless death on our roads,
governments across Australia are taking action to reduce the death toll by lowering
speeds. In some States speed cameras have been handed a central role in ridding
the roads of the speeding menace.
But these policies are misconceived. There is no simple relationship between
speed and death, and speed cameras aren't saving lives.
Australia's roads are not the dangerous places they are often portrayed. Between
1980 and 2002 there has been a 48 per cent reduction in the number of road fatalities,
with most of this drop occurring between 1980 and 1991. This is now one of the
safest countries in the world to drive: nearly twice as safe as Belgium and an
astonishing seven times safer than Turkey.
If speed did kill then the safest roads would be urban roads where speeds are
lowest. In fact, the reverse is true. It is freeways, where speeds are much higher,
which are the safest roads.
Speeding is rarely the cause of accidents; certainly nowhere near as high as
the figure of one-third that is frequently quoted. To get to this figure reports
often refer to any accident that has speed as a component as being "speed
related". But showing that speed is related to an accident does not show
that it was the primary cause of the accident. British data, collected by police
at the scene of accidents, show that "speed" was a definite contributory
factor in just seven per cent of accidents.
A bad driver travelling 20 km/h below the speed limit can be a far more dangerous
driver than one travelling 10 km/h above the speed limit. US data show that it
is those who travel moderately above the mean speed who are the safest drivers
while the least safe drivers are the slowest and fastest. Although speed cameras
will catch the very fastest, they also catch the safe, moderate speeder and they
completely fail to catch the dangerous, slow driver.
Since 1992 Britain has experienced an explosion in the number of fixed cameras
such that now there are an estimated 5000 in operation. What has been the effect
on the number of fatal deaths on British roads during this period? Since their
introduction, the average rate of decrease in fatalities is half that of the preceding
The picture is similar in Australia. Victoria has had mobile speed cameras
since the end of 1989 and NSW introduced mobile speed cameras in 1991 and fixed
speed cameras in 1999 yet the overall drop in fatal deaths since these dates is
no different from that experienced in Australia taken as a whole. Moreover, in
both of these States the downward trend in fatalities has slowed considerably
in the last few years.
There are two reasons why speed cameras don't make our roads safer. The first
is that speeding is rarely the cause of accidents.
The second is cameras encourage drivers to stick rigidly and unthinkingly to
speed limits. In so doing we run the risk of creating a nation of speedometer
watchers who drive according to the diktat of the camera rather than according
to the prevailing road conditions.
Driving culture in both Australia and Britain has been nurtured over the years
to encourage attentive driving at speeds appropriate for the conditions. It is
this (together with better roads and improvements in car safety) that explains
the impressive drop in road fatalities. It also explains why Belgian and Turkish
roads are so much more dangerous to travel on; the same road culture isn't dominant
in these countries. The danger is, we risk throwing away our driving culture in
pursuit of the opposite culture which promotes compliance rather than judgement.
The growing obsession with speeding and speed cameras is a mistake. Speeding is
rarely the primary cause of fatal road accidents and attempts to catch speeders
through increasing use of speed cameras are failing to make our roads safer (though
they are generating a lot of extra revenue for State politicians). Rather than
the pointless pursuit of speeders, road safety policy should return to fostering
a conscientious driving culture.
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