• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

The sweeping proposal to lower speed limits is on the skids – it's a good thing

Illustration/Getty Images

Transport officials’ enthusiasm for a sweeping lowering of speed limits looks set to go the way of the once-proposed ban on cats in dairies, and regulated showerheads. And thank goodness.

Drivers are well aware that speed kills. It increases both the risk of injury and death in crashes. But speed is far from the only factor causing road accidents, which is why politicians on both sides of the House, with the exception of Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter, have been reluctant to endorse the lower-speed-limit suggestion, or the pending recommendation for an increase in speed cameras and fines.

Official figures do not provide a convincing case that lower speeds would make a difference. Indeed, by some reports, 85% of fatalities occur below the existing speed limits, not above.

Let’s be charitable and assume the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) analysts were briefly carried away with their new computer model, which maps accidents and translates them to a lower-km/h-policy response where they occur.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

What their software can’t tell us is whether it was indeed speed that caused these accidents, or a slew of other known factors. Were the drivers drunk, distracted or dangerously tired? Were the occupants wearing safety belts? Were the vehicles roadworthy? Were the drivers drug-driving, like the 28-year-old who caused a horrific crash that killed seven people in Taranaki last year?

The state of the roads is a factor. And the absence of a median barrier is another known potential cause of increased fatalities. Blind spots, roadworks, ice: all can have an effect that just reducing the speed limits would not necessarily address.

Perhaps as important as any of the above is driver age. Very young drivers, sometimes out carousing, have a high number of serious crashes. Science tells us the risk-governing capacity of a person’s brain does not fully develop until the age of 25-26, typically later for males.

A different NZTA program run over our road toll might show a case for raising the driving age to, say, 24 for women and 26 for men. No government would dare, of course, but raising the driving age might be more effective than decreasing speed limits.

Even the road toll itself is a misleading statistic. When adjusted for the increase in vehicles on the road and kilometres travelled, the rise is not 50% in five years, as officials claim, but 13.5%. Any death is tragic. But to use exaggerated data and try to reduce speed limits without convincing evidence just makes drivers more sceptical. Less respect for laws means less compliance.

Look no further than Wellington’s $88 million “smart motorway”, which measures traffic flows and ordains the permitted speed on overhead signs with the aim of easing congestion. Typically, when the signs are instructing 60km/h, the traffic will either be crawling along at 20km/h because the highway is clogged or averaging 80-100km/h because, regardless of what the signs say, it’s possible to travel at normal speed.

In other words, drivers obey common sense and the evidence of their own eyes rather than some arbitrary and changing instruction from on high. An instruction that 60km/h is optimal when clearly only 20km/h is possible offends against logic, as it does when the road is flowing freely. Try being the one driver travelling at 60 when everyone else is doing 80-100.

The smart technology has actually added time to one stretch of this commuter zone. And as the Automobile Association warns, the NZTA speed proposals could cause accidents through driver frustration. Police are increasingly ticketing people for slow driving, because it can be dangerous. Driving more slowly than the prevailing traffic causes impatience, risk-taking and road rage. Slower driving times could also prove a drag on our already-sluggish productivity.

In any case, technology that’s galloping up behind us has better answers. Increasingly smart cars automatically govern our speed, can alert drivers to road conditions and will one day contain the equivalent of an aircraft’s black box that will tell us exactly what/who caused an accident.

Effective “smart” – and green – technology would be a better preoccupation for our leaders and bureaucrats than this obsession with speed.

This editorial was first published in the June 22, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.