Australia: Deaths Go Up After Speed Limits Imposed

The Newspaper
by The Newspaper

Up until 2007, rural freeways in the Northern Territory, Australia had no speed limit. Claiming that speed limits were essential to saving lives, the state government imposed a 130km/h (80 MPH) limit on the Stuart, Arnhem, Victoria and Barkly highways and a 110km/h (68 MPH) speed limit on all other roads, unless otherwise marked lower. Despite the best of intentions, however, the number of road deaths actually increased 70 percent after the change — despite worldwide drop in traffic levels ( view chart).

“Our roads are safer, vehicles are safer, paramedics more skilled, drought affected roads are dry, the public have never been more aware of speed limit enforcement, penalties have never been tougher,” RoadSense founder Harry Brelsford explained. “These factors should have driven the road toll lower than before. They have not, it is rising. Clearly more of the same is not only not working, it is killing people.”

The Australian motorist rights group compiled the latest road fatality data provided by the Northern Territory Police. In 2006, the last year without rural highway speed limits, the road toll was 44. Last year, with speed limits on all roads, the death toll grew to 75 ( view data, 400k PDF). The proliferation of speed cameras throughout the country has also increased the level of hazard faced by motorists.

In all of Australia, the death toll decreased by nearly a third between 1989 and 1996 — without automated enforcement. In the next eight years following the introduction of speed cameras, 1997-2004, fatalities only dropped ten percent. Between 2005 and 2007, the death rate began to skyrocket.

“A major reason for the failure of the policy is the extreme focus on the dangers of above the limit travel to the exclusion of nearly all other risk factors,” Brelsford said. “This implies that traveling below the speed limit is safe, leading to complacency, inattention and increased fatalities. Additionally, the current policy of hidden speed cameras has actually impaired driver awareness through adding to an increasing list of dangerous distractions.”

RoadSense advocates setting speed limits at the 85th percentile speed, or the speed at which the vast majority are comfortable traveling. The group suggests that government efforts would be better directed at the 98 percent of accidents that happen while traveling at or below the posted speed limit.

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  • Campisi Campisi on Jul 18, 2009
    Speed doesn’t kill. Impact does. I need this on a tee shirt.
  • Pch101 Pch101 on Jul 18, 2009
    if we have a result that goes contrary to our hypothesis we’ll that’s just because the sample pool is “too small” or it’s just a ’statistical blip’ In other words, you want to rewrite basic rules of statistical analysis because you find them to be inconvenient. Here's a basic mathematical example to illustrate the problem of scale on these numbers: The town of Podunk has a murder every other year, resulting in an average of 0.5 murders per year. But then, there is a year during which there are two murders. The sensationalists would focus on percentages -- "Murder rate up 400%!" Which of course, it is, but that misses the point that there is usually 0-1 murders, and that 2 is not much greater than 1. Now let suppose that in the year following the two murders, Podunk gives the police chief a pay raise. The number of murders in the next year is one. Now the sensationalists print a new headline: "Murder rate falls in half!!!" Only a statistical illiterate would fall for such percentages or just assume that there is a correlation to this one specific data point (in this case, the police chief's pay increase.) The percentage is distorted by the small denominator, and there is no evidence that the pay increase led to there being one less homicide. Obviously, a 400% increase in the murder rate in a place as small as Podunk would not at all be comparable to a more populous area, such as what a 400% increase in the murder rate would look like for the US as a whole. There is just no comparison. The data provided in this article is misleading because it presumes causation and exploits the scale problem. If you look at the actual numbers (, you will note a few points: -For each accident that occurred, the average number of fatalities per incident was greater than has been typical in prior years. Furthermore, the most dramatic increase in deaths was not among car drivers, but among passengers, pedestrians and motorcycles. (The first point might be attributable to higher passenger loads per vehicle, perhaps as a result of higher fuel prices encouraging people to ride together, which makes these accidents more bloody than before.) -Combined with some of the other information provided, one can surmise that this particular increase in fatalities occurred in the town of Darwin, not in the countryside. So these additional deaths have no bearing on evaluating the impact of the law, because they did not occur in locations that were affected by the speed limit. -Fatalities between January - July 2009 have been far lower than they were in the comparable six month periods prior to the speed limit change. So someone on the other side who wants to manipulate numbers, as has this article, could try to give credit to the limit, just as this article has attempted to do the opposite. All told, you can't use this data accurately, and come to the same conclusions as this article. The speed limit appears to have no relationship of any kind, positive or negative, to the increase in fatalities. Those increases may well be a fluke that occurs when examining data during short periods, and not indicative of anything in particular. I suspect that the Northern Territory which has long, straight highways such as you can barely imagine probably carries the highest risk of falling asleep at the wheel. This is generally not the case. Alcohol is far more likely to be a factor; fatigue is rarely an issue. The do-gooders all slowed down to the “speed limit” while reasonable people continued driving at higher speeds. This means more sudden moves, passing, distractions, road rage, etc. Again, the data doesn't suggest that at all in this case. You should read the backup, rather than make assumptions, as is usually the case with those who passionately advocate for and against speed limits. Both sides tend to cherry pick their information to suit their own agendas, in an effort to mislead the public.
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