Monday, July 12, 2010

Making Drivers Into Outlaws

Over the weekend it was reported that the RTA is considering tightening up the amount of leeway granted to drivers detected exceeding the speed limit. It was suggested that a margin of as little as 4 km/h is being considered, although technically even one kilometer per hour over the limit is actually against the law. Of course the obvious problem, pointed out by people ranging from motorist groups through to police officers, is that speedometers are not always accurate to that degree. In fact a 5% error is common, meaning that when your speedo is showing 100 km/h, you might actually be doing 105, or perhaps just 95. Even with the best intentions in the world, people trying their best to do the right thing could easily fall foul of any law applied quite so rigorously.

The good news is that the Roads Minister David Borger has said categorically the story is not correct, and that the leeway is not being reduced, although he refuses to say just what the leeway is for fear of encouraging people to push their luck. Nevertheless, this conundrum does identify the shortcomings of relying too heavily on speed limits as a tool to manage road safety, and at the same time fuels the fears of many people have speeding tickets are nothing more than a source of revenue for the government. It should be obvious that it is not speed alone which is dangerous, but whether the speed is appropriate to the road and traffic conditions which prevail. Where speed limits are imposed, it implies that motorists cannot be trusted to act responsibly and drive safely without being subjected to an increasingly draconian range of rules.

In an ideal world, speed limits would exist to inform and assist the driver in interpreting road conditions. Instead, motorists are increasingly subjected to a bewildering array of constantly changing speed zones which could be 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100, or 110, at any given point, and you miss just one signpost you run the risk of becoming Australia’s most wanted. That’s eight different speed zones which are commonly encountered, and which might appear in any sequence at any point. Adding to the confusion are electronic variable speed signs which mean that even familiarity with the road is no help, and ridiculous road works speed restrictions left in place when no actual work is being done. It is both confusing and frustrating, two things which I believe are counterproductive for road safety, but clearly increase the chance of motorists getting stung with a fine.

For many people, the reintroduction of mobile speed cameras from next week only confirms that the Government is more interested in the revenue, than in actually making our roads safer. The fact that the State has already budgeted to collect $137 million form the new cameras is the last nail in the coffin. While the Minister insists that he would be happy if not one cent was collected, the bottom line is that without the money there is a hole in the budget. That’s money that we are told will be spent on fixing roads and providing other essential government services. So, if the government is sincere and really wants us to slow down, why are they counting on having the money? It’s easy to get the impression that they actually want us to get caught out, rather than making it easier for us to stay safe.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There have been studies done in many towns in Europe where all the road signs, speed limits, and traffic signals have been removed, and the road safety record has improved. People actually slowed down because they were forced to judge for themselves what was a safe and appropriate speed for the conditions. Instead of racing through traffic lights, they had to slow down at intersections and give way where appropriate. Instead of clinging to some sort of imaginary right of passage, drivers instead had to exercise respect for all road users, including cyclists and pedestrians. It has been a radical shift in thinking, but it has demonstrated strong results.

That doesn’t mean that all speed limits should be abolished, or that all rules should be thrown out. But it does demonstrate that, in the right circumstances, people can be empowered to autonomously behave in a responsible fashion, without the government enacting so many laws that it becomes impossible to avoid becoming an outlaw.

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