Speed limits may go in parts of Australia

00:29, May 09 2013
Australia's Northern Territory government reviews decision to lower speed limits after road toll didn't drop significantly.
NO LIMIT?: Northern Territory speed limits on open roads could rise from 130 kmh to unrestricted.

Australia's Northern Territory could soon return to having open speed limits on remote sections of highway after its road toll failed to drop at the same pace as the rest of the country.

Year NT Aust
2001 50 1737
2002 55 1715
2003 53 1621
2004 35 1583
2005 55 1627
2006 44 1598
2007 57 1603
2008 75 1437
2009 31 1488
2010 50 1352
2011 45 1277
2012 49 1310
Source: NT Department of
Transport, Department of
Intrastructure and Transport.
Northern Territory chief minister Adam Giles is reviewing speed limits on the Stuart, Victoria and Barkly Highways as part of a pre-election promise. Giles has already flagged likely increases to the speed limit on selected sections of highway, and is expected to announce his decision shortly after delivering next week's Territory budget.

Open speed limits were abolished by the former Territory Labor Government in 2006 and replaced by a maximum limit of 130 kmh.

In the six years since, more people have died on Northern Territory roads (307) than in the six years before the change (292).

Fatalities on the Stuart, Victoria and Barkly Highways have almost halved since speed limits were introduced, from 62 to 32, but the statistics show that the drop is more to do with fewer drink-drivers and the increased use of seatbelts by Territory drivers. The number of speed-related deaths droppped from six to four, while the number of alcohol-related deaths dropped from 22 to eight and the seatbelt-related deaths dropped from 19 to nine.

While the Territory road toll has increased in the six years since the introduction of speed limits, the Australian road toll for the corresponding period has reduced by 14.3 per cent (or 1414 people).

Giles said the government was assessing the findings of three separate investigation reports before it made a decision.

"I have consistently stated that any review of speed limits will be evidence based," he said.

"The priority goal is to balance having effective and efficient speed limits in place with road safety for all road users.

"The current investigation is based on crash data, road features (width and rutting) and operating characteristics dependant on engineering design of road sections."

Scrapping the speed restrictions would see the Northern Territory return to having discretionary limits, similar to high-speed sections of German autobahns. The road fatality rate per 10,000 vehicles is lower in Germany than Australia (0.8 versus 1.0 per 10,000, according to 2009 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics), despite vast sections of 130 kmh and open speed highways.

Despite the Northern Territory case study – and some overseas examples where speed limit increases have had little or no effect on fatalities - there is still overwhelming opposition to raising the speed limit in other Australian states or the ACT.

NSW Minister for Roads and Ports, Duncan Gay said that there would be no review of NSW speed limits. "We have no plans to have unlimited speed-limits on our roads," he said.

Professor Max Cameron, a researcher at the Monash University Accident Centre, said the Territory Government would be risking lives.

"Increasing the speed limits again in the Northern Territory is very much in the wrong direction," Professor Cameron said.

"The simple answer to reducing fatalities in rural environments is to reduce speed limits, not increase them."

In NSW, authorities say speed is the biggest contributor to the state's road toll. However, as with the rest of Australia, their definition of speeding does not relate to the speed limit but "inappropriate speed for the conditions", among other factors.

In Australia there are no statistics on how many fatalities are caused by motorists exceeding the speed limit.

"Excessive speed is straightforward, however, there are often cases where a vehicle is travelling below the posted speed limit, but the speed is deemed inappropriate for the conditions," the general manager of the NSW Centre for Road Safety, Marg Prendergast, told Fairfax.

University of NSW Professor Mike Regan said inattention was "the biggest contributing factor we know of for crashes", and that crash analysts oversimplified the role of speeding.

"Often speed is coded as the causal factor but if you think about it more laterally it could be that a person was distracted and as a coincidence they went over the speed limit," Professor Regan said.

"I think sometimes it's a matter of being a bit more precise in knowing what the actual causal factor was ... most of the time you're relying on police reports at the crash scene to determine what the causal factors were."

Lobbyists and some safety experts have long advocated increasing speed limits to 130 kmh on major arterial roads such as the Hume Highway, arguing it would not cost lives and could reduce the rate of fatigue-related crashes.

Between 2008 and 2012, fatigue was a factor in 24 per cent (148) of fatalities on NSW highways. However, since speed limits were introduced in the Northern Territory, fatalities caused by fatigue are unchanged (13 in the five years prior and 13 in the five years since).

Prendergast challenged the view that higher limits would reduce fatigue-related crashes.

"There is no evidence to suggest that increasing speed limits reduces boredom and there is also no evidence to suggest that a reduced speed limit increases fatigue related crashes," she said.

Professor Cameron said that on top of overwhelming evidence against increasing speed limits, Australia's older fleet of cars, sub-standard roads and poor lane etiquette were further reasons not to increase speed limits.

"What we do know is that the speeds on rural roads in Australia are particularly high and in fact should be reduced."

-Fairfax Media Australia