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The myth of speed

By David Leyonhjelm - posted Wednesday, 26 June 2024

We are constantly told that Australia has a huge road toll. Every holiday break and long weekend there are reports of how many people were killed, amid inferences that this is a major and growing tragedy.  

Equally constant is the assertion that the underlying cause is speeding. There is a never-ending campaign, complete with gory advertisements warning of lifelong injuries, telling us to slow down. The message never varies – below the speed limit is safe, above the limit is not. Indeed, we are told that even 1km/hr above the speed limit increases the likelihood of serious injury and death. Vacuous journalists blame speed for almost every accident they cover.

And should we fail to heed the message there are speed cameras, aerial monitoring, highway patrols and double demerit periods to remind us. 


In reality, driving on Australian roads is safer than it has been for over fifty years. Road fatalities, both absolute and relative to the population, have been steadily falling.  Whereas in 1970 there were 3,798 road fatalities, equal to 30.4 fatalities per 100,000 people, in 2022 there were just 1,194 fatalities, a rate of 4.6 per 100,000.

Most of the decline occurred prior to 2000 following the introduction of seat belts, improved road design, vehicle safety upgrades such as disc brakes and impact resistance, and limits on drink-driving.

But it has continued up to the present time: in the decade to 2012 the rate of deaths relative to population decreased by an annual average of 4.2%. In the ten years to 2022 it fell by an annual average of 1.9%.

The bottom line is, Australia’s road toll is a fraction of what it once was and continues to fall. Fewer people die in road accidents than from the flu or Covid. And yet, rather than celebrate this success, government perpetuates the fiction that things are bad and getting worse. Moreover, despite quite minor changes to speed limits over the period (slight increase on highways and slight reduction in the suburbs), it insists that excessive speed is the primary culprit.   

All this while most of Europe, which has overall higher speed limits than Australia, has lower road death rates. That includes Germany, where there are no speed limits on major autobahns.

Responsibility for this myth lies with the National Road Safety Strategy, prepared every few years by transport and infrastructure bureaucrats from the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments. For many years it has led a crusade with the broad aim of significantly reducing road trauma, resulting ultimately in zero deaths and serious injuries (which it defines as anyone admitted to hospital, irrespective of seriousness or the length of stay), by 2050.


It argues speed is a key element in all crashes, and that this necessitates lower speed limits and additional enforcement. State governments, which collect tens of millions in speeding fines, dutifully go along with it.

While very high speeds can obviously lead to more serious accidents, the data shows that deaths occur at any speed. Indeed, achieving zero deaths and injuries from road accidents is only feasible if everyone walks (even then, some would die of heart attacks). That would clearly be unacceptable to the community, which implicitly accepts a certain level of deaths and injuries as the price of convenient travel.

The elevation of speed limits to icon status is both dishonest and absurd. Those responsible for setting limits, road safety experts and traffic engineers in the public service, are determining the trade-off between convenient travel times and the road toll for the entire community. If speed is truly the demon we are led to believe, they are essentially deciding how many people should die. 

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This article was first published on Liberty Itch.

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About the Author

David Leyonhjelm is a former Senator for the Liberal Democrats.

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