Lowering Speed Limits 'not a Magic Bullet'

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It’s said that the UK government introduced its first speed limit because a man named Jack Sears drove an AC Cobra coupe at 185 mph on the M1 highway. Back in 1964, that was perfectly legal. By December 22, 1965, however, the speed limit on the M1 was legally declared 70 mph. Speed limits are necessary, but there is a limit to what be can achieved by lowering them...

Across the pond in the United States, the reasons to institute speed restrictions seemed more sensible; the American legislators used a multitude of factors to eventually formulate its limits. One of those factors was something called the 85-percentile rule, which was based on the actual speed travelled by most road users on a given road, depending on the conditions. This theory accounts for the average speed, as well as the difference in speed between road users. It was also established that the optimal speed for reasonable fuel consumption was 55 mph (88.5 kph) and that’s how the US also got speed restrictions.

Back home, the South African National Road Traffic Act of 1989 ensured that our roads were kept safe by limiting speeds to 60, 100 or 120, depending on road location and conditions and now, 30 years later, the South African government is looking to reduce the speed limit by 20 kph across the board. Suffice to say it has had countless motorists up in arms... 

Upon reading the article, I could barely stop my knee from jerking in sympathy. As I scrolled through the comments I found myself agreeing with most of the sentiments; it smacked of a state-sanctioned money grab (through officious speed-fining), or simply an over-correction in response to South Africa’s frankly unacceptable road-accident figures. Is this just another poorly-planned and -executed plaster applied to a gaping wound, as blood continues to be spilt on our roads... OR is the government unintentionally hitting the nail on the head?

Look, change IS needed

A look at the stats provided by Transport Minister Blade Nzimande shows that 1 612 people died on South African roads between 1 December 2018 and 8 January 2019. Now I know we’ve all read these stats many times and have become numb to them but imagine that: more 1 500 people died over the 2018 holidays; they’re lost to their friends and families.

Unlike our other recent successes on the world stage, this is nothing to be proud of. These figures put us 159th out of 175 countries when it comes to total road deaths. Something has to be done and, understandably, the government has to be seen to be doing something. Certainly, the need to enforce lower speed limits on residential, rural areas and accident hot spots is something we can all agree on. But, that’s not all that our government has planned.

Are stricter rules really the answer?

South Africa has a diverse mixture of languages and cultures and its road network is equally kaleidoscopic: We have bustling cities, split by long winding highways. National roads that pass through rural villages and major centres, all within a few hundred kilometres of each other. It's not uncommon to see farm animals on our roads and pedestrians crossing busy highways. Many of these conditions exist out of necessity, we are still, after all, a developing country. Our current road network is multi-faceted and, to be blunt, almost unmanageable. 

And now, the government is trying to “manage” it even more.

'90% of road deaths occur because of driver error.'

According to the report, we can expect more roadblocks, a clampdown on bribery (which is a good thing) and, as the article suggests, lower speed limits.  In the same report, it is stated that in excess of 4 000 vehicles were impounded. An impressive stat, but with only 5% of road deaths caused by vehicle failure, is this where we should be focusing our attention?

According to the report, 90% of road deaths occur because of driver error. Errors made by the driver... “It’s an open and shut case”, I hear you say. 

We’ve all seen horrifying instances of vehicles overtaking slower traffic on blind rises and other flagrant flouting of rules, sometimes with potentially dire outcomes. Driving under the influence of alcohol, and of course, the world’s latest vice, texting and driving, is rampant.

These infringements are committed by young and old, private and taxi- or bus drivers alike. When comparing our statistics with countries with much lower road death figures, driver attitude, behaviour and respect for the rules of the road seem to be major key differences.   

The autobahnen of Germany is a good example. Some sections of the Teutonic road network are indeed de-restricted, but then German drivers are usually fastidious about which lane to use (whether they’re cruising or in a hurry) and minimum speed limits are usually adhered to as to lower the speed differential between fast and slow-travelling vehicles. With 1.6 deaths per billion travel-kilometres, It remains one of the safest road networks in the world.

And it could be worse.

Studies have shown when speed limits are lowered, it could lead to more congestion, more road rage and increases in “speed differential”. Which, unlike speed itself, is the real killer. A study done by the US Department of Transport found lower speed limits don’t necessarily reduce accidents, but does significantly increase the number of speeding fines issued... 

It’s called the “Wild West” for a reason

In cowboy movies (Westerns), the premise is either that law enforcement is lacking, slack or missing completely.  Characters seemingly gun each other down at will and ride their horses as fast as they dare. Unless there’s a new sheriff in town, stricter rules simply don’t work.

Given our infrastructure, there will certainly be a reduction in road deaths if the speed limits are lowered, especially in rural and residential areas. But that’s like saying that you lessen blood loss by putting a bandage on a gunshot wound. Yes, but you don’t stop the bleeding. 

As road users on one of the most dangerous road networks in the world, we’ve had to accept that there is a chance of sustaining injuries when travelling at anything faster than walking speed. And I’m sure, just like me, you too may or may not have been part of the problem at least once. The road users on our road network need education and training, more effective policing and an efficient infrastructure... Not drive slowly for slowly’s sake.

There are ways to minimise “driver error”, but lowering speed limits isn’t one of them.

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