Higher speed limits may save lives

Could it be that the Greek tragedy that’s caused so much angst these last 18 months might actually have some positive side effects? Should we still be surprised that politicians’ favourite method of dealing with problems they don’t have the political will to fix is to simply divert the electorate’s attention elsewhere? Are we not, after all, just one mindless mob to manipulate and distract that they might cling to power for one term longer?

Occasionally, however, their diversions bear some fruit. British parliament, for instance, is considering raising the country’s national speed limit from 70 miles per hour (112 kilometres an hour) to 80 mph (128 km/h). The British transport ministry is dressing this up as fiscally responsible by saying it’s improving efficiency by reducing travel times.

Of course, a cynic (Who? Me?) might think that it’s all part of Prime Minister David Cameron’s “wooly” campaign to have a country’s success measured by something other than GDP, which, of course, in merry old Blighty, is falling like a stone. Indeed, there’s a movement afoot to rebrand the measuring stick of nations as the more touchy-feely gross national happiness (GNH) rather than the far more inflexibly harsh gross domestic product. That anyone (France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy is also said to be a fan) is taking seriously an idea first propagated by tiny Bhutan in 1972 is surely proof of how desperate western leaders have become to obfuscate how truly terrible things have become in their home countries.

Nonetheless, the British transport secretary, Philip Hammond (not to be confused with Richard Hammond, aka The Hamster, one of the speed freaks on BBC’s Top Gear television program), makes some astute, if obvious, assertions.

“These speed limits were set in the 1960s,” says Hammond, noting that, since 1965, when the current 70-mph limit was introduced, there has been a 75% decline in fatalities despite the far greater number of drivers and distances driven.

Of course, there has been all manner of criticism from the usual suspects: “greens” who fear a spike in fuel consumption (“The Saudi oil minister will rub his hands with glee,” says Greenpeace) to proponents of Britain’s nanny state, who unabashedly support any measure that stifles fun. Indeed, The Guardian’s “Speed Limit: Philip Hammond puts his foot on the accelerator” begins with the admonition that “Speed’s fun, but it kills. Let’s go with the nanny tendency on that — we need discouraging not the metaphorical green light.”

Of course, the jury is still very much out on whether speed kills. While it takes only Grade Eight physics to understand that a car hitting an immovable wall at 100 km/h will have a greater impact than one schmucking the same truculent object at 50 km/h, circumstances such as road conditions, traffic congestion, speed differential and especially driver education are as, if not more, important than absolute speed. Critics who cite certain U.S. jurisdictions that have seen a rise in accidents when raising speed limits ignore the fact that Americans are among the worst drivers in the developed world (and have a significant number of high-speed highways with road crossings). One is far safer speeding along Germany’s autobahn than creeping along an American highway at 55 mph (88 km/h).

What’s perhaps most interesting is not the facts behind the proposed legislation but its politics. According to The Independent, “The Tories wanted to announce the 80-mph limit next week because it appeals to their base and they can sell it as promoting business. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats [Cameron’s coalition partners] claim there is strong evidence that, in road safety terms, expanding 20-mph zones saves lives [the proposed legislation also expands on the number of areas with a 20-mph (32-km/h) urban speed limit].”

Hammond, meanwhile, is trying to determine the cost of lower speed limits, calling for a “rigorous cost-benefit analysis of speed limits” rather than making it simply a safety issue.

“If you took just that view, you would have 10-mph [16 km/h] limits everywhere. We need to look at the value of safety benefits and the cost in terms of additional journey time,” he says.

All this controversy about safety may turn out to be something of a tempest in a teapot. Britain’s Department of Transportation says that 49% of all English motorways users are already exceeding 70 mph and that one in seven is going 80 mph or faster. (Having sampled British highways numerous times, your lead-footed correspondent finds even those statistics somewhat low; the Brits really motor).

Besides, according to The Independent, less than 6% of all British automobile fatalities in 2009 occurred on high-speed motorways. Meanwhile, 42% of Britain’s 2,222 traffic casualties (and 65% of its serious injuries) occurred in built-up areas, which could be reduced by the expansion of those 20-mph speed limit zones. Indeed, the statistics seem to show that Hammond’s proposed legislation might actually save lives.

Real story behind road fatality stats may lie in driver numbers, not traffic speeds

Statistics may not lie, but truth often lies in deeper number crunching. For instance, among European Union nations, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands all have fewer fatalities per billion kilometres driven. One might presume to think, then, that Germany’s unlimited-speed autobahns are the cause of its higher mortality rate. Peruse a little further, however, and you find that all three have far fewer automobiles per 100 residents, which speaks to traffic density. Indeed, all the countries in the EU with a lower accident rate than Germany have a lower vehicle density. So, what’s the killer? Speed or the number of people driving? Similarly, if speed kills, why would the United States, with its draconian speed restrictions, be only slightly ahead of Papua New Guinea and Tajikistan (in 63rd place) with 13.9 road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants while Germany is in 13th spot, just behind England and Sweden?

Photograph by: Morris Mac Matzen, Reuters