Speed Kills ... or does it?

[This story, written by me, appeared in Wheels magazine in 2006 (I think). It's still relevant today - maybe even more so, with the regulatory obsession with camera-based enforcement even more entrenched. See if you still agree with that after you read it.]

Speed kills is coercion by stealth; a passive-aggressive attack on decent drivers. To advocate against it invites scorn. You appear to endorse anti-social behaviour … and risk being labelled a crackpot. Why not just wipe off five instead?

When road safety and PR collide, rational debate is blocked. How do you argue in favour of speed when even a fool – especially a fool – can see it kills? And when slowing down won’t kill you, obviously. Do you really need to ask yourself: How fast are you going now? These are all slogans sans substance. It amounts to foreplay with no follow-through. Try arguing with inane ‘advice’ like: slow down in wet, or don’t die for a deadline. Is anyone whose IQ exceeds the room temperature really comforted when they ‘learn’ that cameras cut crashes?

But is it really that simple? Or is our regulators’ “singular obsession with speed” (former deputy prime minister John Anderson’s words) merely dubious policy cast in the character of virtue? Can the policy on speed be rendered true by relentless repetition?

Speed is a sound bite. Each of the ‘grabs’ above in italics, from road safety advertising, is cleverly engineered to wield strategic influence. Each packs maximum persuasion into the fewest words, but will they save you from yourself?

Some will infer – incorrectly – that this attack results from having received one too many speeding fines, or indignation over revenue-generating rip-offs. Not true. These are not the greatest evils foisted upon us by ill-conceived obsessions with speed. More serious is the failure to equip drivers with effective survival strategies. While researching this issue, I stood for three days beside the doctors and nurses in the John Hunter Hospital’s Trauma Centre, and saw firsthand the impact – literally – upon the injured and their families. It’s impossible to think of the statistics as mere numbers when you’ve seen the blood. This, plus the twentysomething billion-dollar annual impost on the taxpayer, is the serious price misdirected road safety policy exacts from the community. At the risk of playing the regulators’ stealthy, sloganistic game: Paying a fine won’t kill you – but vacuous road safety policies might.

Australia’s road regulators are guilty of the good they’ve failed to do. Obsessions with speed mean more effective safety policies aren’t implemented. Some of the 1600 deaths and 22,000 serious injuries annually on Australian roads could be prevented by a better approach. The status quo generates substantial revenue, but how many are injured as a consequence? These are excellent reasons to engage in robust debate – if only to keep the bastards honest, as the late Don Chipp once said.


Two-thirds of road death occurs at, or below, the speed limit

Most states broadly agree that excessive speed is a contributor to around one-third of road death. The NSW RTA refers to “speeding” as “the greatest contributor to road fatalities”, which certainly sounds more dramatic than a more accurate admonishment, namely that speeding is, at most, one third of the problem. How reasonable does the obsessive focus on speed seem now? Is it merely convenient?

Regulators like Dr Don Carseldine, PhD, disagree. Dr Carseldine heads up the NSW RTA’s speed camera department. He claims there is “a vast body of convincing and robust evidence that speeding is a major contributor to road trauma”. He would also have you believe “cameras are an efficient use of road safety funds”.


Millions have been spent telling you there’s no such thing as safe speeding. Actually, however, there is

For starters, ‘safe’ is nonsensical. Transport has always been, to some extent, a killer. ‘Safe’ really means ‘acceptably low-risk’. Can you exceed the speed limit – sometimes – with acceptably low risk? Definitely.

Perhaps you are what the authorities consider an experienced driver with a good driving record. Perhaps you feel, at times, that it is perfectly safe to drive at 70km/h in a 60 zone – based upon experience, and after carefully considering both your capabilities and the vehicle’s, plus the road conditions. Have you been unable to reconcile the disconnect between your impression of reasonable driving and the purported excessive risk of ‘safe’ speeding?

It’s claimed that every 5km/h over the limit doubles your casualty crash risk. Sixty-five in a 60 zone equals twice the risk, allegedly, and 70 means quadruple the risk. Every state and territory subscribes to this shaky hypothesis because it is convenient.

Let’s forget momentarily that the Road Accident Research Unit study that issued this ‘finding’ is 10 years out of date. Let’s also leave aside that the study was based on an examination of a mere 151 crashes in Adelaide using a 30-year-old computer program to guess the speed of those crashes. And let’s also sideline the seldom-publicised part of the study that suggested driving at 40km/h also involved an elevated crash risk.

Let’s suspend critique, and just roll with the suggestion that 70 in a 60 zone equals a fourfold elevation in casualty crash risk. That’s a bad thing, right?

Actually, no. Australian Transport Safety Bureau data reveals there is around one road death nationally in every 100 million vehicle-kilometres driven. In one kilometre of ‘average’ driving, your risk of dying on the road is one in 100 million. A fourfold elevation means four chances in 100 million. So the alleged elevation in risk at 70km/h in a 60 zone is three in 100 million, or about one in 33 million: just like winning Lotto, only in a bad way. And equally unlikely.

A fourfold hike, or a microscopic blip of one in 33 million? Guess which option facilitates the most effective fear-mongering?


…but are we really so sure?

Actually, we’re not. Crash data is collected by police, and most often it’s general duties officers with no real crash investigation training who attend crashes. According to road safety researcher Peter Ivanoff, a former NSW police officer (15 years’ service, five years in the highway patrol and three more as a police driving instructor) “speculation, opinion and at best calculated guesswork routinely pass for fact as the cause of crashes”. He says that while in some cases, the ‘how’ of crashes is reasonably well understood, “we do quite poorly when it comes to understanding why they occur”.

This is why cause is so poorly understood in road safety policy. Ivanoff says it’s common for officers to link a crash’s physical outcomes with pre-determined criteria (such as speed) in the absence of conclusive evidence. Drivers rarely choose to incriminate themselves, and investigation is not a high police priority at most crashes. The usual police agenda is to restore traffic flow, establish how the crash happened (not ‘why’) and take action against driver(s) deemed responsible.

Even when trained crash investigators turn up, Ivanoff says, a better picture of ‘how’ sometimes emerges, but ‘why’ is often no clearer. Crash investigations are commonly inconclusive. “What often becomes apparent … is the lack of a clear reason why the impact occurred, despite having information that indicates how the crash happened.” This is especially true of fatalities, where human factors (such as driver distraction) are often impossible to establish. Ivanoff adds that the “old chestnut” of reasoning – if the driver had been going slower perhaps the crash could have been avoided – often leads to an expedient determination of excessive speed in the absence of conclusive evidence.

“Experience has shown me that losses of control primarily occur because of a failure on the part of drivers to recognise and respond to hazardous road conditions. Poor judgement, poor risk perception, ignorance of risk, inattention, complacency, poor driver education and unsafe road environments are all more significantly involved as causal factors of road trauma [than] speeding.” Many of these criteria do not even exist as causes to be recorded on any database as far as the RTA and its counterparts are concerned.

Ivanoff says the system is rife with inequity. He claims that while only three per cent of road trauma occurs in 110km/h zones, speed traps in these regions predominate. Why? Authorities claim enforcement is “intelligence driven” but Ivanoff argues the “deployment of mobile speed detection is much more designed around the [convenient] acquisition of targets”.

He adds that the system supports itself. “State governments continue to fund and use statistically derived research to justify their policies of road trauma reduction when clearly, actual results show the research is inaccurate and/or misleading.”

Even when short-term road-death reductions take place, the regulators are quick to claim all the glory. No control is made for economic factors, better vehicle safety technology, improved roads or more effective medical treatment. In these situations politicians like to claim it is they alone who are “winning the battle” (thank you, Senator Ron Boswell).


How real world experience failed to get on board with the speed/risk stats

Here are two real-world examples where raising speed limits meant dropping death rates.

  • In 2004, Italy increased its maximum speed limit from 110km/h      to 150km/h. Road death on those roads immediately dropped by 20 per cent.
  • In 1995, the US abolished its blanket 55mph limit, which had      been in place for 21 years. Thirty-three states raised their limits. By      1997, US road death had dropped to the lowest limit since record-keeping      began (in 1966). There were also 66,000 fewer injuries, and 200-million      fewer man-hours spent travelling.

Your average Australian road safety ‘expert’ responds to these facts with stealth: “Yes, but deaths on the Interstates increased because of higher speeds!” This is the gist of what the Federal Government’s road safety consultant Dr Ron Christie told me when I raised the US experience with him at Parliament House, Canberra, during a 2004 road safety forum. The response is disingenuous. When limits went up, US drivers stopped blatting down unsafe back-road rat runs to avoid the Interstate’s unreasonable 55mph enforcement. Deaths increased on Interstates because of substantially boosted traffic volumes, but fatalities dropped dramatically overall, and insurance companies reduced their premiums (evidence of the reduced crash and injury risk). Net result: more efficient, safer, higher-speed transport.


Speed is a bad thing, right? Er … wrong.

The term ‘speed’ has become so semantically promiscuous that its use defies common sense. It is commonly used to mean both ‘speeding’ and ‘excessive speed’, making meaningful debate impossible.

In truth, all crashes are speed related … because cars that are stopped cannot crash. Speed and transport go hand in hand, and always have.

Speeding implies driving faster than the posted limit. Whether or not this is actually dangerous depends on many factors, including whether the posted limits are appropriate.

And are they? Maybe not.

When the NSW NRMA commissioned expert civil engineering consultants to compare the posted limits on four of Australia’s longest and most heavily trafficked arterial roads in Sydney against the requirements of the Australian speed limit standard (AS1742.4-1999) it found shocking inconsistencies. Three of the roads failed to comply over 50 per cent of their lengths, and the fourth failed to comply over 80 per cent of its length.

The only term that relates directly to road safety is ‘excessive speed’, which means driving dangerously fast. Our regulators know this, but include in their definitions of ‘excessive speed’ such bizarre phenomena as ‘trucks jacknifing’ (actually caused by emergency braking and excessive steering, not excessive speed) plus a raft of non-expert opinion that predisposes those at the coalface of crash reporting to nominate ‘excessive speed’ and thus promote current statistical theory.

When the world-renowned British Transport Research Laboratory commissioned research into crash causes that precisely defined what ‘excessive speed’ was, it found in 1999 that only 7.3 per cent of crashes were caused by it.


Rather than find road trauma’s causes, Australian road regulators examine only its ‘contributing factors’, which conveniently boosts the statistical involvement of factors like speed. Unfortunately, the road to prevention is not necessarily paved with contributing factors. The problem is this:

  • Going to work was a major contributing factor in most of the      3000-plus deaths in New York on September 11, 2001.
  • Taking a holiday was a major contributing factor to most of the      1500-plus deaths that occurred when the RMS Titanic sunk on April      15, 1912.

Nobody, however, would boldly suggest staying home from work as a practical countermeasure to terrorism, nor that cancelling your holidays can make avoiding icebergs any easier.

Another problem with contributing factors is their propensity to cross over meaninglessly with other contributors. The NSW RTA says that of so-called “speed related” deaths, 31 per cent also involve drink-driving, 20 per cent involve not wearing a seatbelt (or a helmet if on a motorcycle), and 12 per cent feature unlicenced drivers. What causes these crashes is not known. One could crash with all four factors above at play, and the real cause could be driver distraction.

Despite the gulf separating causes from contributors, in its Speed Problem Definition and Countermeasure Summary, the RTA has the gall to claim: “577 people were killed on NSW roads in 1999. Of these, 245 people died as a result of a speeding driver.” This statement is, of course, right up there in the credibility stakes with any episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


Several Australian studies have identified that more than two thirds of road trauma occurs at intersections and areas of congestion. Other studies reasonably suggest that a similar proportion of all crashes occur when vehicles turn across each other’s vehicle paths. Speed is unlikely to play a pivotal role here.

We already have a robust series of rules dictating appropriate intersection and turning discipline. If obeyed, these would prevent all such crashes. What seems to be happening is driver error – by both the driver who breaks the rules (whether intentionally or not) and the driver who fails to perceive the ensuing hazard.

Where is the robust campaign aimed at educating drivers about these very real risks?

Other key road safety niches are crying out for attention – drunk pedestrians, for example (accountable for more than a third of pedestrian crashes) as well as driveway runovers (eight per cent of child road death) and unlicenced drivers (10-12 per cent of all drivers are unlicenced) – but are swept neatly under the rug, or are at least eclipsed by speed.

While the status quo is maintained, thirtysomething Australians die each week; sixtysomething are seriously injured each day – and many good drivers become disillusioned with a system that appears morally bankrupt. Meanwhile the zealots steering the ship remain eternally optimistic about implementing ever more stringent speeding countermeasures.