The Victorian "Speed Kills" Brigade Marches On


Last week I attended a workshop on safe system road design. It was a work-funded all-day training session/presentation covering the various aspects of safe road design. I feel like I might have been the only car guy there. Certainly the presenter wasn't, the way he talked about hoons. Cue some tongue biting at different stages. 

Anyway I was there for work, to learn how to design safer roads. As a by-product I got a good blog topic out of it. And so once again I find myself writing about Victoria's narrow minded nanny-state ways.

The planning and design component of the Safe System or Towards Zero approach makes a lot of sense. It essentially comes down to a range of road design features intended to make roads safer. Those wire rope barriers are the most prominent example. They're very effective at preventing roll overs when drifting off to the left, or head ons to the right. Turn those around if you're in a LHD country. There are also various traffic calming measures applied in urban areas, particularly intersections, to encourage drivers to naturally drive slower.

What doesn't make sense is the blinkered, heavy-handed speed kills mentality of Victoria Police. During the training, speed enforcement was brought up as a last resort measure for when nothing else is working, or you need a temporary solution. I had a traffic management lecturer who said the same thing. If the only thing slowing people down is the threat of a $250 fine and two demerit points then all you're going to spend more time watching your speedo than the road. A well designed road doesn't actually need a permanent speed limit enforced to a two percent tolerance.

It also partially defeats the purpose of highways and freeways. They are designed to make road travel as fast as possible. If you set a speed limit of 110km/h, and stick with it for 40 years and counting, you're never going to improve the road’s functionality.

Our speed limits were set for cars like this

Our speed limits were set for cars like this

Speaking with a road safety auditor from Sydney, I learned that New South Wales has reduced demerit points for minor speeding to one. The fine is roughly half what it is in Victoria. They don't hide their cameras either. They're only in identified black spots, they have signs as you approach and they're yellow.

I explained to him that Victoria is sticking firmly to aggressive speed enforcement, and that the Hume Highway is a favourite spot for them. It's not even close to the most dangerous road in Victoria. It's of such a high quality, and so straight, that ordinary people routinely drive above the speed limit. The police sit in the bushes all day and and fine drivers. It's great for revenue, but it does nothing for safety.

Speeding isn't the issue on the Hume. It's fatigue and distraction generated by its length and featureless nature. Driving on the Hume at 110km/h is too easy. It either needs a higher limit, or a redesign to give it more corners and shorter straights. In any case it needs looser speed enforcement, so drivers don't blindly stick to 110km/h. Greater speed variability between drivers will keep them engaged with their surroundings.

According to Road Safety Camera Commissioner John Voyage "people watch shows like Top Gear which has no safety message but has a message of what fun it is driving fast... A car is a utilitarian device, not this fun, pleasure thing they're advertised as"

I think we've found the most boring man in the world.

Okay, John, if cars are so utilitarian, why does Top Gear even exist? Or the Grand Tour? Or Fifth Gear? Unless of course you mean that that's how cars should be treated. That approach would be detrimental to road safety. If you make driving as boring and utilitarian as dish washing, then people are going to take it about as seriously as dish washing. If driving is a chore, then people will become absent minded while doing it because they're not fully engaged. They'll start texting, or fall asleep. Use the fact that driving can be fun to your advantage. Make people want to drive and they will look forward to driving, and try to improve their ability.

This photo of Chris Harris enjoying himself in a car on TV should make John Voyage's head explode with confusion

This photo of Chris Harris enjoying himself in a car on TV should make John Voyage's head explode with confusion

In September last year Voyage claimed that the public wanted more cameras and called opponents flat earthers. 

“I consider this shows there is a high level of acceptance in the community that fixed and mobile road safety cameras have a role to play in calming traffic speeds and reducing the risk of injury and death on our roads,” 

“This may be an area which will occupy some of our efforts, to get a better understanding of the public acceptance of the road safety camera system with a view to a more favourable public perception; and an end to the ‘flat-earthers’.”

He's either completely out of touch with public sentiment or cherry-picking the public comments that support his own views. 

Voyage isn't alone. Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Doug Fryer available the Transport Accident Commission’s Samantha Cockfield are both advocates for lower speed limits on rural roads. Fryer believes that because rural highways aren't as good as Melbourne’s 100km/h Tullamarine Freeway, they should have limits. I've driven regularly on various rural highways and the Tullamarine Freeway, as well as the M1, Eastlink and the Metropolitan and Western Ring Roads. Fryer clearly hasn't. Or perhaps he just wants the revenue and doesn't venture out of Melbourne very often. For Mr Fryer’s benefit I'll explain why it's appropriate for them to have the same limit. Traffic volume and travel time. The Tulla is one of the busiest roads in Victoria. At peak hour, it's not exactly easy. The Midland Highway, which runs from Mansfield to Geelong via Benalla, Shepparton, Bendigo and Ballarat, is relatively quiet between towns. North and central Victoria is also very flat, so there's not much to do. Fatigue, not speed, is the killer. Dropping the speed limit won't help.

The Tullamarine Freeway

The Tullamarine Freeway

Yes it's true that out of the 291 fatalities that occurred on Victorian roads, 151 were on rural roads. 67 of those were head-ons, 61 were drivers veering off.

Cockfield points out that head on crashes are survivable in a modern car at 70km/h, so 80 is a more appropriate limit. That's a band aid solution at best. It focuses on the cure while disregarding prevention all together. In all my time on the Midland, Murray Valley, Northern or Princes highways, I've never drifted out of my lane because I was going too fast. People do it because they're distracted or asleep. Slowing people down on already dull roads will make this worse.

The Midland Highway

The Midland Highway

What's my solution? The Princes Highway from Traralgon to Sale has been undergoing duplication since 2011. The completed sections are fully divided, so it's virtually impossible to have a head on collision. On the left hand side there are no solid objects to hit at 100km/h. The Midland highway connects the four biggest regional cities in Victoria, why can't it have the same treatment? Admittedly it would be expensive, but there would be economic benefits to making regional Victoria more liveable.

Another part of Australia’s road safety problem lies in our driver education program. Or rather the lack of government supported one. The road safety experts think that defensive driving courses have no impact because people who go through them tend to put themselves in riskier situations. Now there is merit to that argument, but emergencies do tend to happen out of nowhere. It should be stating the obvious to say that someone who knows how to control a car will fare better. Even just compulsory regular driving lessons with a professional instructor would be an improvement on what we have now. In Victoria, the requirement is 120 hours including 10 at night. You can do all 120 hours with your parents, in an automatic, pick up all their bad habits, and still get your licence. Even if your parents are good drivers, they could still be rubbish teachers.

If a change comes, it will be at a glacial pace. You'd be hard pressed to find a high ranking traffic cop who doesn't believe in the speed kills doctrine. You wouldn't make it that far if you didn't genuinely believe it. Unless you're trying to Frank Underwood your way to Chief Commissioner. As New South Wales’ shadow transport minister, Duncan Gay promised to do things differently. He wanted to cull the number of speed cameras, improve roads and raise freeway speed limits to 120km/h. When the Liberal-National coalition was elected, and he became transport minister, he found it difficult to enact any of his policies. It was all the usual suspects. The police were reluctant to change, the treasurer wouldn't give up the speed camera revenue, and there were concerns the public wouldn't accept a higher limit. As a result there was no action on speed limits, and an increase in the number of cameras. It was road safety dictated by treasury.  

Duncan Gay has been an advocate for changes New South Wales road safety policy

Duncan Gay has been an advocate for changes New South Wales road safety policy

And after four decades of speed kills, it would also be hard to get the public on board with higher limits, particularly older drivers. Mark Skaife's 2010 pitch for a 140km/h Hume Highway speed limit, among other measures, was met by media hostility. This despite Skaife having facts on his side. Germany, despite a much higher population density, has a lower road toll per capita than Australia. Then in 2013, Wheels Magazine had British journalist Ben Oliver drive a Volvo S60 Polestar from Melbourne to Sydney, doing 130km//h from the end of the average speed cameras at Seymour. Police on both sides of the Murray River were outraged, labelling Oliver "reckless". Gay, on the other hand, gave his support, but felt that it would be hard to implement.

"I think in certain conditions (130km/h) would be a speed that could be contemplated, but it is not a speed that the community would accept," he said.  

New South Wales have managed some improvements. You won't be surprised to learn that Victorian authorities disagree with them. The policy of making cameras clearly visible is particularly baffling to them. They believe that anyone who only slows down for cameras is flouting the law. Therefore they won't do anything that allows people to do so.

On the training front, New South Wales  runs the Safe Driver Course theoretical and practical training program for L-platers. Also, hours logged with driving instructors are worth more than those with parents. Queensland has a similar system. It trades some quantity of hours for quality and should produce better drivers. However, New South Wales still persists with lower speed limits for L and P platers. It turns them into mobile chicanes and doesn't allow them to learn how to overtake. Being a licence condition, not a road rule, it doesn't apply to drivers on interstate licences in NSW, but it's very frustrating being stuck begin a NSW P plater doing 90 on a single lane arterial in northern Victoria.

Last nigh Gay announced his retirement. he was the longest serving  New South Wales roads minister. Hopefully New South Wales continues with his policies, setting a good example for Victoria. 

The Safe Driver Program conducted at Sydney Motorsport Park

The Safe Driver Program conducted at Sydney Motorsport Park

At least one man in state parliament wants to do something. Last year,  member for Benambra Bill Tilley came out in support of a 130km/h speed limit on the Hume Highway.

“We see in parts of western society and Europe that you can travel safely at 130km/h during good conditions and down to 110km/h in wet conditions. And certainly their roads aren’t necessarily any better than what we have got here – particularly the Hume highway I am advocating.

“For decades now we have simply been sticking to the default position and saying ‘speed kills’. Now I know as a member of the police, and working for a short time with the highway patrol, it is not always just speed that is the major contributing factor to fatalities and injury, both serious and minor,” he said

After years of trying the same thing with ordinary results, perhaps Victoria should take New South Wale's lead and try something different. Unfortunately it seems that the powers that be have no interest in doing anything.