EDITORIAL FRIDAY 30.10.09.
The latest figures, released yesterday, show that the road toll in New South Wales is well up on the same time last year, and quite understandably questions are being asked about why this is so. At the same time there has been a call from the National Motorists Association of Australia to actually increase speed limits on some rural highways, arguing that frustration and fatigue are contributing to the road toll. They say that higher speed limits will reduce intimidating and aggressive driving because drivers won’t by frustrated by speed limits that don’t always seem to make sense. While this might seem to be illogical, is it possible that they have a point?
There are parts of the world where high speed driving is normal, and one of the most frequently quoted examples is the German Autobahn system. Studies there have shown that while the Autobahns carry 30% of the nation’s traffic, they account for only 3% of the crashes. Further, the unrestricted sections of the Autobahn are reported to have no more crashes that any other part of the motorway. In Australia, the Northern Territory had unrestricted roads until a speed limit of 130 kilometres per hour was introduced only a few years ago. After the limit was imposed, the number of crashes actually increased. Apparently the same thing happened in Montana in the United States when the previously unrestricted roads had a 120 kmh limit imposed and the rate of road crashes almost doubled.
Of course, the safety of driving at high speed is very much dependent on the standard of the road. Here in New South Wales the standard of our roads ranges from first class motorways right through to country roads that wouldn’t be safe for a wheel barrow race. Nobody in their right mind would recommend high speed driving on roads that are simply not up to a reasonable standard, but one of the things which has prompted this debate is the proposal that the speed limit on sections of the Newell Highway should be cut from 110 down to 100. It is doubtful that such a change would do anything to improve road safety, while it is certain that it would increase both travelling time and the levels of frustration of motorists who become stuck behind long haul trucks.
On long country highways where the traffic is not as congested as an urban motorway, it would seem that perhaps there is an argument for high speed limits. But the one thing that annoys drivers more than anything else is speed limits which are inconsistent and which make no sense. For example, there is no problem with driving at 100 kmh on a single lane highway in the bush, but if an eight lane motorway has one lane closed off everybody is expected to slow down to 80 or 60 or sometimes even 40, in what would normally be a 110 zone. Even more baffling is the need to slow down to a crawl so far before a roadworks site that it takes all day to get to where the actual roadworks are taking place, and the ultimate nonsense is the speed limit imposed on a roadworks site when no work is actually being done and the road itself is not obstructed. But just because there is some machinery parked off the shoulder and some barricades alongside the road we all have to slow down anyway. It is that kind of ridiculous imposition which leaves drivers frustrated and confused, and perhaps less likely to respect speed limits at all.
It is already a requirement that drivers should drive to suit the prevailing road conditions regardless of the posted speed limit. That means that if the weather is bad we should slow down. If there is an obstacle we should slow down. If there are roadworks, we should slow down, even if there isn’t an official sign telling us to do so. We should be smart enough and responsible enough to do the right thing anyway. But in this increasingly dumbed-down, politically correct world, apparently it is necessary to put a sign on everything, and make a law about everything, to control everything we all do. It would seem speed limits are no different, and although they have an important place in built up areas, suburbs, school zones, and so on, out on the open road it may be that we are being confronted with an excess of regulation with no real improvement in actual safety.
In the end there is one thing that we should all realize. If we do crash, the speed at which we are travelling can make a dramatic difference to the outcome of the accident.