Are our speed limits too low?

Are Australian speed limits too low? The knee-jerk reaction from most motorists is “of course they are” and the equally predictable response from police and road safety groups is “they should be lower”. Paul Murrell looks into the story behind our much-debated speed limit policy?

We were conducting a two-car comparative road test recently and had occasion to drive down the Hume Freeway in Victoria.

It was 7 am on a Monday morning, on what is almost certainly Victoria’s best stretch of road, at least as far as safety issues are concerned. We left Albury at 7.10 am (we even forego sleep-ins, just for you) and sat fixedly, mesmerised, on the speed limit of 110km/h along a road that certainly would have been safe at a speed half as fast again.

The drive was relentlessly boring. The road was virtually straight, with a wide division between us and traffic coming the other way and all we had to do was watch that cruise control didn’t let us stray too far over the limit. Victoria has a ludicrous 2km/h tolerance… despite Australian standards requiring your speedo be accurate to plus or minus 10%. So if the speedo was reading 110km/h we may have been travelling at 121km/h or 100km/h, and at the upper limit that would have incurred a substantial fine and loss of points. Most cruise controls are unable to maintain speed within two percent of the set speed; some vary by considerably more (on a long downhill run, I have seen a set 110km/h speed exceed 130 – I over-rode the control at that point to avoid a potential fine). As it happens, we had a Navman satellite navigation unit which gives precise readouts using a triangulated satellite system. It indicated that the Holden Volt was travelling at a consistent 6km/h below the indicated speed (so we sat on an indicated 116km/h, but an actual 110km/h).

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By the time we exited the freeway in suburban Melbourne, we had travelled 313km at an average speed of 104.33km/h. We had also passed through seven fixed speed cameras, passed by three stationary camera cars and been observed by two Victoria Police patrol cars (both lurking on overpasses, not cruising the highway where they might actually do some good in modifying driver behaviour). Twelve speed traps in just three hours! Not counting any unmarked police cars we may have missed.

There is currently a campaign (almost certainly doomed to failure) to see some of our speed limits raised. In Victoria, there is a campaign to have the speed limit on the Hume Freeway raised to 130km/h. Wheels magazine conducted a stunt, widely condemned as irresponsible, of using a UK-based motoring writer to drive from Melbourne to Sydney at 130km/h in all zones signposted at 110km/h. He observed all other speed limits and slowed for fixed speed cameras. Incredibly, he wasn’t stopped by police once in the 800km journey, nor did he incur a single speeding fine.

The outcry was as predictable as it was hysterical. “Deliberately reckless,” thundered police and politicians. “A ridiculous threat to the safety of other road users.”

What was ridiculous was the implication that anyone, including the UK journalist or other motorists were put at risk in any way.

The UK journo commented “The near zero tolerance to speeding causes cars and trucks to bunch together as one overtakes another achingly slowly, terrified of getting pinged. (I was) flagrantly breaching Australian law by doing something that is considered perfectly safe and legal in other countries.”

And guess what? He didn’t die. He didn’t kill anybody. And he reduced his travelling time by 70 minutes. “I marvel at the staggering wrongheadedness of the constant roadside signs,” he added, “warning drivers of the dangers of fatigue when the unnecessarily low speed limit forces them to remain behind the wheel for longer.”

Taking his point about traffic “bunching” and overtaking times, when I was taught to drive, I was told to spend as little time on the wrong side of the road as possible. In Australia, various police officials have often stated that there is no excuse, under any circumstances or at any time, for exceeding the posted speed limit (this is legally questionable, as has been proven numerous times in court). So, let’s look at the situation where you want to overtake a semi-trailer. A semi is 19 metres long (one trailer plus the prime mover – new rules mean many trucks such as B-doubles which tow two trailers are considerably longer than this). A reasonable margin of three car lengths (15 metres) at the beginning of the overtaking manoeuvre and at its conclusion is reasonable, making a total distance of 49 metres. The hypothetical semi is doing 90km/h (unless it’s travelling downhill or uphill). You accelerate to 100km/h behind the truck and check your rear vision mirror, indicate and pull out into the oncoming lane. It will take you almost 18 seconds before you are three car lengths ahead of him and able to resume the left lane. For seven of those seconds you will be beside the truck. You will be on the wrong side of the road for 490 metres, almost half a kilometre. If you were allowed to increase your overtaking speed to 120km/h, the time taken would drop to six seconds and you would be on the wrong side of the road for less than 200 metres. You would be adjacent to the truck (the most dangerous part of the manoeuvre) for just over two seconds. The numbers become even more frightening with longer trucks and smaller speed differentials.

Why is 130km/h considered “a threat to other road users” when it is almost the default open road limit in other countries? France, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands all have an open road limit of 130. Bulgaria and Poland are at 140km/h. In Italy 150km/h is considered acceptable and we all know that Germany has no limits on selected roads. I have driven in many of these countries and the traffic density is usually considerably higher than in Australia. The roads themselves are not markedly better than many of ours.

The real reason for our road toll is not speed but inattention and fatigue. Add lack of driver skills and excessive speed for the prevailing conditions, and the mix becomes a lethal combination. Let’s discount the idiots who drink and drive, or refuse to wear seatbelts – in my opinion, that’s just natural selection at work.

We often travel vast distances on near-deserted roads, yet we are limited to artificially low speed limits and heavy penalties for even minor infractions. In the UK, the freeway limit is nominally 70mph (113km/h). Police rarely pull anyone over for less than 85mph (137km/h) unless there is another reason, or conditions don’t warrant such speeds. I have been travelling on a British motorway at 80mph, being overtaken by all and sundry, including a highway patrol car. The officer waved at me and continued on his way, substantially over the posted limit. I think he may have been encouraging me to increase my speed in line with the prevailing traffic.

After the Wheels stunt, Channel 7 conducted a viewer poll. Sixty percent of Victorians who responded want the limit lifted to 130km/h or even 140km/h. In NSW and Queensland, 57 percent of respondents also wanted the limit raised (data from other states was ignored because of the delayed broadcast). Those numbers are not necessarily statistically accurate or representative of the wider public, but they are substantial.

In Queensland, a major review of speed limits is currently underway and could see the 110km/h limit raised on some routes (it may also see limits reduced where there is an argument for doing so). Transport minister Scott Emerson has announced he “will consider raising limits where there’s a demonstrated need to do so”.

Meanwhile, the Northern Territory government is honouring a pledge to reinstate open speed limits. When the 130km/h limit was introduced in the NT in 2006, the then Chief Minister explained it thus: “We have a problem in the Territory,” she said. “We drink and drive, we go through red lights and we don’t wear seat belts.” What she failed to explain was how a speed limit would change any of this behaviour. In the first 12 months after the introduction of the 130km/h speed limit in the NT, the NT road toll increased by 20 percent.

A 12 month trial begins in February on a 200km stretch of the Sturt Highway between Barrow Creek and Alice Springs. NT transport minister Peter Styles acknowledges that higher speeds may be safe under the right conditions. The Sturt Highway has been identified as a low risk stretch, with no speed-related fatalities in the ten years from 2001 to 2011. The NT police association and Automobile Association oppose the move, and road safety groups, the police union and the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons will call on the commonwealth to block the legislation. The results of the 12-month trial will be audited before any plans are made to expand the open limits in the NT.

In Texas, laws have been passed allowing an 85mph limit on roads designated as having been engineered to cope with faster speeds. The first stretch of road affected was a 64km tollway outside Austin. An 80mph limit was already in place on more than 800km of the state’s highways. Kansas has passed legislation to allow 75mph (122km/h) on more than 1600km of its roads. Kansas was the 14th mid-western state, where road and driving conditions are remarkably similar to ours, to raise the speed limit on certain roads to 75mph or more.

Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober was born in the shadow of Mount Panorama in Bathurst and, so, it was inevitable he’d fall into work as a motoring writer. He began his motoring career in 2000 reviewing commercial vehicles, before becoming editor of Caravan & Motorhome magazine. He then moved to MOTOR Magazine before going freelance and contributing to Overlander 4WD, 4×4 Australia, TopGear Australia, Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, The Australian, CARSguide, and many more.