Issue 23 / 22 June 2015

THE decision to reintroduce open speed limits on a Northern Territory highway has experts worried that the national road safety message of “speed kills” is being undermined by policymakers.
Dr Stephen Gourley, chair of the NT faculty of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, told MJA InSight that the decision was “silly” and counterproductive of all other efforts to reduce the incidence and impact of road trauma.
“It’s like telling you on one hand that seatbelts will save your life, but then saying it’s okay not to wear them sometimes.” 
Dr Gourley was responding to an MJA Perspectives article by Dr David Read, director of trauma and burns at the Royal Darwin Hospital, that discussed the NT government’s decision for a trial to allow motorists to drive at whatever speed they felt comfortable with on a 200 km section of the Stuart Highway. (1)
Despite concerns voiced by medical, policing and road safety groups, the government’s response was to emphasise the opposing impacts of alcohol and seatbelts on road safety, to deny speed was a major factor in many crashes, and to promote individual driver responsibility.
Dr Read wrote that Australian and international studies had shown that reducing speed limits by 10 km an hour on rural roads decreased the crash risk by 20%‒25%. 
The Australia road deaths database showed a decrease of 3.4 fatalities per year on NT roads with a speed limit of 110 km/h or above following the abolition of open speeds. Dr Read acknowledged the small numbers involved made statistical interpretation difficult.
He said that other legislative measures and trauma system improvements were likely to have contributed to the reduction in deaths, but playing down the role of speed in crash risk was unwise and “sends the wrong message to the NT population, especially when they are already three times more likely to die on the roads than people living in other parts of Australia”.
“The available evidence in the literature suggests that the piecemeal reintroduction of open speeds on the highways of the NT will eventually result in an increased number of fatalities and serious injuries”, Dr Read wrote.
Professor Brian Fildes, adjunct professor at the Monash University Accident Research Centre, agreed, telling MJA InSight that emphasising driver behaviour alone was not enough to reduce the incidence of road trauma, and that “road and infrastructure design, and safe vehicles, are critical components here too”.
However, he said speeding remained one of the most serious issues that needed to be better addressed in road safety strategy, as the role it played in accidents was under-recognised.
“High speeds relative to other speed limits, and the rest of the traffic, is risky and [the fact is] that many crashes in rural areas occur from excessive speeding.” Professor Fildes said that the groups at highest risk for road trauma were young inexperienced drivers, older drivers, male drivers and motorcyclists.
Professor John Crozier, chair of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons’ Trauma Committee, said speed was a contributing factor in approximately one third of all road trauma incidents in Australia.
On a national level, road crashes killed around 1400 people every year and caused 32 500 serious injuries, “which is roughly the size of the population of Ipswich in Queensland”, he told MJA InSight. (2)
Dr Gourley said the most common injuries associated with road accidents were head and spinal injuries, as well as blunt trauma to the abdomen. Dealing with these severe injuries could have a profound psychological impact on the emergency physicians who treated them.
“However, I think it is much worse for the police and ambulance workers who attend the scene of the crash — we see the patients once they’ve been tidied up a bit, and in a more controlled environment.”
Professor Crozier said road trauma had a big impact on healthcare resources, often requiring the support of every speciality in the hospital, including orthopaedic surgeons, facial reconstruction teams, thoracic surgeons, vascular surgeons, general surgeons and radiologists. 
“Then there are the ward and [intensive care] costs, and the costs associated with rehabilitation. And some patients will have serious injuries involving paralysis of limbs, which requires long-term care”, Professor Crozier said. 
He said the open speed limit policy in the NT was in clear breach of the agreement signed by all state and territory transport ministers on the restriction of road speed, and represented a failure to follow through on the shared goals and actions outlined in the National Road Safety Strategy.
(Photo: Marcin Pawinski / shutterstock)

8 thoughts on ““Speed kills” message dented

  1. John Lambert says:

    Of course speed kills! 

    The only way to prevent collision related deaths is to remain stationary – that way we will never run into eachother or any thing.  People die from walking at 5km/hr and tripping or falling unexpectedly.

    Clearly increasing speed increases the kinetic energy involved in collision and decreases the time to make decisions.

    But what about other factors?  Road surface conditions, numbers of intersections, corner curvatures, car braking and handling capabilities, likelihood of large animal intrusion onto the road, mental aptitude and mental state (angry vs relaxed) of the driver, internal cabin distractions not to mention the obvious ones of fatigue, alcohol and other drugs – these are but a few!

    It is ironic that this is in the same edition of MJA Insight as an article on the challenges of simplicity vs detail in terms of climate change!

    A speed limit is an arbitrary number meant to strike a balance between risk and benefit.  Sadly it is also politicised which rarely makes for good decisions.  Making drivers travel at 50km an hour along dual four lane roads in metropolitan areas drives frustration to a level that causes crashes as drivers act in an angry state.

    As with all strikings of balance, extreme views may be held but should not influence the decision unduly.

  2. Dr Gary Russell says:

    The data suggesting speed is a factor in a third of all road traffic fatalities is as flawed as the manner in which it is collected ie by police officers attending crashes and making calculated guesses. Driver fatigue, distraction and inattention are of much greater importance as triggers for crashes, but do not lend themselves as readily to demonisation as does SPEED.
    They are also much less amenable to efforts to enforce them by road traffic authorities than is the demon speed. The truth is that most crashes which lead to fatalities take place at speeds near the posted limits, and the proof of this is the stubborn refusal of fatalities to further decline over the past 15 years, despite increasingly draconian enforcement of speed limit efforts. It is also of note that in the USA, following the repeal of the federally-mandated speed limit of 55mph introduced in response to oil prices quadrupling, and a return to much higher limits, that fatalities actually FELL.

  3. Roger Paterson says:

    speed kills, but is not necessarily the cause of the accident.

    The NT open speed limit trial has been going for about 3 years now hsn’t it? It is about time the NT govt told us what the crash, injury and death statistics for that stretch of road have been during this period, compared to the period when there was a limit in force, and compared back to when there was originally no limt. It’s a trial right? where are the results?

    So far all we are getting is the theorists railing against the principle. Let’s have some facts on this specific road, which is different from any other road in Australia in that it is not too busy, but is part of a long boring drive between Darwin and Alice Springs. Boredom causes accidents too.

  4. Mark Laws says:

    I agree with the person’s comments above.

    I understand that the NT government did study the data from the part of the highway which is unlimited and there had been no statistics on MVAs to support the reduced speed limit.

    Speed is not the major cause of MVAs.  Inattention, distraction (texting etc) would rate much higher.

    Where roads are appropriately built, speed iimits should be increased.  Modern cars are designed to operate safely and efficiently at more than 100kph.  Speed limits should be adjusted depending on the weather, time of day and amount of traffic with electronic signs.

    Reducing travelling times should improve the inattention/microsleeps and looking at the speedo constantly.


  5. Marcus Aylward says:

    In the the tiny countries of Europe, the default freeway speed limit is 130km/h, with the same freeway fatality rate as here. Conclusion?: it ain’t just about speed.

    The NT road is not a freeway, but it is empty, and long. Enforcing fatigue by unnecessarily prolonging journeys in a country as big as Australia is simply counterintuitive. And at 180km/h, your attention is all on the driving (believe me).

    Sure: it muddies the water on the message “speed kills”: but maybe that’s because that message is itself flawed because it is too simplistic.

  6. Malcolm Brown says:

    The Australasian road safety conference in Melbourne in November 2014 placed speed limit reductions on rural roads as a low priority. As Professor Fildes has said, road and infrastructure design and safe vehicles are more important issues. Occupational health & safety research tells us that the human factor revolves around proper training and competence on the one hand, and reduction of risky behaviour on the other. Safety is all about risk perception, and risky driving behaviour is best addressed by visible police presence, visible speed cameras, and plenty of drug and alcohol testing so that people see the risk of getting caught is high. About a decade ago a large number of roads in the Adelaide Hills were reduced from 100 to 80 km an hour, and in the five years before the reduction there were seven fatalities, and in the five years afterwards there were six. This sort of research result shows why road safety experts do not advocate speed limit reductions in campaigns to reduce injuries on the roads. These reductions are only popular with politicians because they are cheap and they can be seen to be doing something.

  7. Dr Andreas Hoffmann says:

    I really do not want to tell anybody what to do. But as a German (GP and emergency doctor) who lives in New Zealand now I must write a short statement.

    Look at German Autobahns. No speed limit, and less accidents than on any other roads! German Autbahns prove: safety has nothing to do with speed. If people do not concentrate on driving, if people do not drive appropriate to the conditions, if people are not fit enough to drive safely – not even the lowest speed limit would reduce accidents.

    I have never before seen the very unsafe BEHAVIOUR of motorists that I experience every day in New Zealand, and I do not think this is much different in Australia (considering the above comments). Modernised roads, modern cars and responsible drivers are the key to road safety, not killing mobility and criminalising people who only want to go from A to B in reasonable time. Blaming speed is just the easiest, most comfortable way for the police as well as for politicians…

  8. linda mayer says:

    They have found that pilots on long flights now pose greater risks due to distraction and inattention than in the past.

    With modern cars, sitting at the same speed on a long, dull, maintained road will be asking for distraction, sleepiness and inattention.

    The arguments given here are fear-mongering, tabloid out of context with respect to where increased speed limits would be instigated.

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