Speed management: it’s about saving lives

A stubbornly high number of people are killed or seriously injured on New Zealand roads, and according to the OECD New Zealand ranked 29th out of 35 OECD countries for road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants in 2022. Beyond these statistics, there are countless stories of loss, avoidable harm and heart ache, and a frustratingly consistent yearly story across Aotearoa. There has been progress over the longer-term and improvements to vehicle safety, the widespread use of seat belts, and the enforcement of drink driving laws are some key initiatives that have driven down harm on New Zealand roads since the 1970s. However, despite investment in safer roads, in the past decade progress has plateaued or even worsened depending on the timeframes used.

It hasn’t been through a lack of trying and the Safer Journeys and the Road to Zero road safety strategies sought to implement the safe system and build inherently safer roads. The problem is that New Zealand has limited funding available and we haven’t moved fast enough. There’s about 100,000km of roads in New Zealand and to make them all safe, would take many decades. This is why safe speeds are so important and it’s why the Australasian College of Road Safety (ACRS) – the pre-eminent voice of road safety evidence and expertise across Australia and New Zealand has developed a policy position statement on speed management.

Speed limits stir many opinions from the motoring public and many worry that they’ll be slowed down or lose productivity with lower speed limits. In fact, where lower speed limits have been implemented, overall travel times are typically not affected much. This is because most people are already travelling slower, and the lower speed limit just gives a clearer message to those driving too fast for the conditions. And meanwhile we are saving lives. The evaluation of 880km of Auckland roads that were subject to Phase 1 of the Safe Speeds Programme found a 30% reduction in fatalities (compared with a 9% increase in fatalities where speeds were not changed), and a relative reduction of 18.4% for all injuries. One of the worst things we can do for productivity is kill and seriously harm our young people who have a lifetime of societal contribution and productivity ahead of them – road crashes are the leading cause of death of New Zealand’s young people.

Understandably, some people find changes in speed limits confusing where the road context doesn’t match. This is important and it’s key to the ACRS speed management position statement. Speed limits need to be set to reflect different road types. Streets near schools and shopping centres have many pedestrians and we know that the risk of a fatality increases dramatically above 30 km/h when a vehicle collides with a pedestrian or cyclist. On higher speed roads where there is a risk of head-on collisions, even the safest vehicles won’t prevent fatalities or life changing injuries much about 70 km/h. So if we are serious about saving lives on the road, we need our speeds to reflect people’s vulnerability in different contexts. It’s really important speed limits are credible and believable, and reflect the risk.

Most importantly, if we want to make progress in driving down harm on our roads, safer speed limits are by far the most cost-effective way to do this. Enforcement of non-compliant behaviour is certainly important, but all parts of the system need to help. We need our vehicles, our roads, our road users, and our speed limits to be safe if we are to expect any improvement in the trauma and loss of opportunity that hundreds of families and friends experience each year.

We may not have it perfect, but next steps should be about reflecting on the evidence and making improvements, not reversing it all. What is absolutely clear, is that any increase in speed limits without supporting safety engineering, will lead to more deaths and harm on New Zealand roads. We have a growing evidence base for how well implemented speed limit reductions have saved lives. Over coming year it will be important to robustly monitor the outcomes from speed management activities so that progress can be tracked and built-on, and likewise any worsening of harm can be explained.

For further comment or information contact:

  • Hamish Mackie, ACRS New Zealand Chapter, on phone 021 0670337 or nz@acrs.org.au