The authorities persist in road rule enforcement and penalty application that patently isn’t doing much to reduce the road toll or make our roads safer. That’s why people get so angry about being pinged for relatively minor offences while the really dangerous drivers carry on regardless, writes Paul Murrell.

OKAY, I HAVE TO ADMIT TO FINALLY BEING PINGED for exceeding the speed limit. Sixty km/h in a 50km/h zone, at 7.49pm on a Sunday in a little village in the Adelaide Hills. My first speeding fine for at least 10 years and it’s four hundred bucks (South Australian fines are among the highest in the nation) I could have spent better elsewhere.

My expiation notice arrived at the same time as a news report that 83 motorists had been nabbed exceeding the speed limit on a 1.5km stretch of road at another Adelaide Hills town, Summertown on December 28. Three were more than 40km/h above the 80km/h speed limit, two were between 30 and 40km/h over the limit and the other 78 were up to 30km/h over the limit (authorities declined to provide further details). One in six vehicles passing the camera was speeding.

Sixty km/h on a sleepy Sunday night in a deserted little village is careless (although hardly worthy of a $400 penalty) but 30 or 40km/h over an 80km/h speed limit is a conscious decision. So where’s the justice or the logic? In Summertown, there were calls to lower the speed limit – but how would that slow down people who are deliberately flouting the existing limit? (It would, however, increase the revenue, since speedsters would be clocked at an even higher speed over the limit.)

Authorities are concentrating on education and enforcement to lower the road toll. But most people who persist in driving drunk or drugged, ignoring obvious unroadworthy issues with their vehicles or consistently and deliberately exceeding the speed limit will continue to take their chances with being caught, and certainly won’t pay any attention to education.

Drunk or drugged drivers are incapable of making rational decisions. In too many cases where an irresponsible driver is likely to cause death or injury through their behaviour, police (through no fault of their own) are only able to act once the driver is already behind the wheel and heading for trouble.

There are three distinct groups of people being killed on our roads: old people, young people and people who habitually abuse alcohol or drugs.

Old people are at risk because their reaction times, eyesight and hearing may be impaired, their bones are more brittle and take longer to heal and often they are driving smaller, lighter vehicles.

Young people are also at risk because of their lack of experience, lack of skill and often their inability to assess the possible outcome of their actions. Working class males between 18 and 24 are an even higher risk than their peers.

The third group most at risk of death on our roads is the habitual substance abuser. He or she may be a teenager who regularly uses alcohol, cannabis, barbiturates or any number of other proscribed drugs, often in conjunction with each other. On the other hand, it may be a farmer who regularly drives home after “a few beers” at the local pub, just as he has for thirty or forty years. If these people are caught and lose their licence it rarely discourages them from continuing their behaviour: they offend again, often driving drunk or drugged and disqualified.

We need to remind ourselves that a motor vehicle is an inherently dangerous object. The claim that speed kills is, simultaneously, both obvious and ridiculous: a stationary car is probably the only safe car. As speeds rise, the danger increases exponentially, but it’s not speed that’s to blame: it’s inappropriate speed. Toddlers are killed by cars travelling at only a few kilometres per hour in driveways. A safe speed on the open highway would be completely inappropriate on a gravel road. A safe speed on a major suburban artery would be completely inappropriate in a school zone.

Roads and road conditions vary widely. Speed limits have been set as a compromise between making these roads safe, and ensuring that traffic moves efficiently. The claim by police and safety groups that every kilometre per hour faster you drive increases reaction time and braking distance is valid. But a motorist travelling at 10km/h above the posted limit on a freeway in clear conditions is not a high accident risk, although the crash, if it does happen, will be more serious than at a lower speed.

Speed, when combined with other factors, becomes a very important component in road safety, but strict and unselective enforcement simply does not work. Case in point: in 2003, the New Zealand government spent millions of dollars on a road safety education campaign. This was followed by a record issuing of infringement notices – one million in one year to a population of just 4,000,000 people. You read that right: the equivalent of one ticket to every four people! New Zealand’s road toll went up.

Most people (apart from those who deliberately and intentionally behave otherwise) will adapt their driving to the environment. Victoria’s Transport Policy Institute says “Drivers tend to maintain a speed that feels comfortable, based on the design (lane width, visibility, clearance) and use (traffic volumes, turning activity, pedestrian activity) of each stretch of roadway. As a result, simply reducing posted speed limits may do little to reduce actual traffic speeds.”

In the New Zealand example, police decided to target non-extreme behaviour as a way of modifying extreme behaviour. But road deaths tend to be concentrated among young drivers, old drivers, drunk or drugged drivers, distracted drivers, fatigued drivers and stupid drivers. Any enforcement campaign that doesn’t focus on these people is doomed to fail.

My reaction to getting a speeding fine is probably typical. The offence was minor, nobody was endangered and the penalty was patently over-the-top. I was driving in a manner and speed I deemed suitable to the prevailing conditions. But rules are rules, and I have been penalised for breaking them. Bugger!


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