Speed limits should be slashed to 80 kilometres per hour on all country highways if the nation is serious about saving lives, a leading road safety campaigner says.
One third of Australia’s population lives outside metropolitan cities but about two thirds of all road fatalities occur on rural and regional roads.
Lori Mooren, a respected road-safety expert once in charge of NSW road-toll policy, said speed limits were still far too high. She has called for a fresh national conversation about how fast we should be able to travel.
Dropping the limit on country roads must be on the table, she said, recommending a maximum limit of 80km/h for the majority of Australia’s rural and regional road network, a 40km/h limit for suburban streets and a 30km/h restriction in the heart of capital cities.
“Speeding is the pivotal issue in road safety - it’s the only way you can immediately bring down the forces that are going to hurt people,” Ms Mooren said.
“We are leaders in cracking down on things like speeding, drink-driving and not wearing seatbelts, but there are limits to what we can do.
“We can’t perfect human behaviour so what we need to do is develop a system that accommodates human error.”
Research and recent history illustrate the stark correlation between speed limits and crashes.
Analysis in Western Australia found if every road user in the state drove just 1km/h slower for a year, 10 less people would die.
In NSW, reducing the speed on the Great Western Highway from 110km/h to 100km/h produced a 26 per cent reduction in casualty crashes.
In South Australia, the same move on 110 kilometres of regional roads led to a 20 per cent reduction in casualty crashes.
However, most attempts to reduce speed limits across Australia are met with mixed reaction from the public. In rural and regional areas, lower speed limits make it harder to transport freight quickly and could contribute to fatigue by increasing journey times.
Dropping the limit from 100km/h to 80km/h would add 45 minutes to a three-hour, 300km journey.
NRMA director Graham Blight lambasted the idea of a blanket 80km/h speed limit on undivided roads.
“That would just be ridiculous in the country,” he said.
“Sure, everyone knows the faster you drive, the more likely you are to be involved in a serious crash, but there has to be some common sense around how people get around.
“I’ve got a lot of time for academics but I think they’re being totally unrealistic here.
“I think they should be working out how to attack the real issues…how to stop people going to sleep, getting distracted… the things that are causing a lot of accidents.”
Mr Blight predicted the public would be outraged by any blanket speed-limit reduction.
Ms Mooren, now a senior research fellow at the University of NSW Injury Risk Management Research Centre, dismissed the likelihood of a backlash.
However, a federal government survey shows just one in 20 members of the public believes the existing 50km/h limit in residential areas is too high, highlighting the uphill battle governments could face should they introduce any further reduction.
“We should take the politics and popularity out of speed limits and set them based on what the potential is for injury-causing crashes,” Mr Mooren said.
“So that means in rural areas, where there is a potential for a head-on or running off the road and hitting trees and power-poles, the speed limit should certainly be no more than 80.
“I understand a lot of people would think that’s horrible but history shows when lower limits are introduced, people get used to it and they are happy to support it.”
Australian Trucking Association spokesman Bill McKinley said a reduction would impact the movement of freight.
“Under the law, it is illegal for a customer to place demands on the business or driver that would require the driver to speed so if there was a reduction in speed limits the customer would have to wear that increase in time it takes to deliver the goods,” Mr McKinley said.
“But even so, we would not support a general reduction to 80km/h or similar because the issues with speed and the trucking industry mainly relate to speed limiters and speed management more generally.”
The number of fatal crashes involving heavy vehicles has been steadily falling over the past decade but most of the carnage still takes place on roads with a 100km/h limit.