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Low speed limits ‘set us up to fail’

speed cameras

Speed limits are generally too low and speed cameras so prolific that the number of unsuspecting motorists trapped has doubled in the past five years.

Long-time motorcycle rider and flight instructor Peter Callil says this policy is set up to fail in the long term.

He has previously provided an insight into scientific information about speed gained from years of safety research which started on a flight instructor course in 1988.


Flying instructor and motorcyclist Peter Callil speed
Flying instructor and motorcyclist Peter Callil

Peter talks about how the low-speed-limit policy sets us up to fail:

Speed limits

Speed limits are supposed to be established to enable the safe and efficient transit of traffic in a given area.  To achieve this, speed zones are supposed to be established with reference to the 85th percentile speed – the speed that the majority of traffic travel at in the given conditions.

Scientifically, this is determined by monitoring the speeds at which traffic travel along a stretch of road in ideal conditions, then establishing the speed limit to reflect the speed at which the majority travel.  This reduces the variance between vehicle speeds, which has been shown to reduce traffic conflicts.

We often hear the anguished pleas of people who claim that everyone speeds in their area, and they are probably right.  However, if the majority of road users are ignoring the posted limit then the limit is wrong, not the majority of road users.

Ironically, traffic that travels either below or above the posted limit could be travelling at the speed that is optimum for their conditions, however, the limit should be set for ideal conditions, so few drivers should feel safer at higher speeds.

Unfortunately, speed limits are not established based on the 85th percentile rule in all cases, and as a result, the majority of traffic will be seen to exceed the limit in those areas.  In this case, the speed limit should be reviewed, not provision for additional enforcement to regulate the speed of traffic below that which is less than ideal for the majority of road users.road_safety_speed_radars

Policy of failure

Governments love to enforce low speed limits, because they gain significant additional revenue from the exercise, however, this is unsustainable in the long term. What usually happens is that drivers will eventually learn to avoid traffic infringements by regulating their speed appropriately, despite the fact they will be forced to operate at a speed that is below their optimum for maximum safety and efficiency.   This will inevitably result in more accidents as the motorist’s attention wanders due to low demand.

Some riders and drivers will feel more comfortable at these lower speeds. The elderly, for example, and the under-confident. However, the majority of confident motorists are disadvantaged by low speed limits – in effect, their performance, and potential safety will be compromised.

We like to put safety above all else, but in reality, safety and efficiency must be balanced to achieve the optimum result.  This concept is generally accepted in the manuals used by governments to regulate traffic safety, however, not many people read those manuals, and simple concepts are easily forgotten in day to day life – especially when there are other agenda that take precedence.

Peter Colwell reaches for his wallet when he's booked in Idaho - speedo gazing

There is a saying about motorcycle riders, that goes, “A thinking rider is a safe rider.”  The same is true of anyone. Once that brain ceases to do the job it’s designed for, you might as well kiss it goodbye.  If you don’t use it, you lose it.

We are slowly being trained to ignore our own senses, especially our common sense, and be a good automaton, devoid of sense, and compassion for others. 

We have been set up to fail by a system that is rewarded for our failure.

  1. The message behind Speed Kills was supposed to educate the public of the dangers of inappropriate speed to get them to slow down when it’s raining foggy congested poor road surface etc basically conditions where the speed limit is too fast.
    But due to the easy of enforcement and thus easy money speed limits became the focus.
    Massively diluting the slow down to a safe speed message and effectively replacing with don’t get booked for speeding.
    The lust for revenue has become so bad that so called peak bodies on road safety seem to have been ordered to word their reports in an ambiguous manor, making it seem like exceeding the speed limit is what causes the accidents when in fact the statistics tell another story.
    Fixed and mobile speed cameras are supposed to be located or very near black spots and these black spots are supposed to be where a number of serious accidents have occurred due to speed but this is rarely the case and some places have been named black spots due to non traffic related deaths, the show Top Gear highlighted one black spot where the only incident was a suicide where the person safely parked their car then jumped off a bridge.
    Government statistics show that at a genuine black spot a speed camera can reduce the number of incidents by up to four percent, but the remediation of the site via layout changes or erection of barrier or traffic calming devices can reduce the number by thirty percent or more.
    Speed cameras have been hailed as a magic bullet by police and so called safety experts, clearly they are not.
    The question now is: does the revenue collected from motorists exceed the cost of all the lost man hours and medical and other costs that this failed policy is causing?

    1. Spot on! Road Safety messages gets lost when people know its bullshit. The every K over is Killer is a perfect example the difference between 100 and 110 when you take into account the variation of individual reaction time is negligible.

  2. Remember the Wipe Off 5 campaign ? When it began it was in response to a Monash Uni safety study which I looked up at the time, and which said that driving plus OR minus 5 of the “speed of the prevailing traffic” increased accident risk enormously. So (I am joining in with the new trend and incorrectly starting a sentence with So..) our vic govt ?accidentally?? misinterpreted this to a blanket ‘slow down by 5’ which mind-set continues to this day…

    As well as less-than-optimum situational awareness when forced to drive at a slower than sensible speed, I have noted an increasing level of frustration – again increasing risks for all.

  3. Before the over emphasis on speed became prevalent slow traffic ment there was some issue occurring whether it be an accident or simply someone pulling into a parking spot when traffic slowed below the 85th percentile you knew something was wrong so you didn’t get frustrated and you heightened your awareness, unless you were a rubber necking moron that would run into the back of a fire engine that is.
    The wipe off five campaign and speed kills and any other program that demonises speed assumes that all drivers and riders are morons and treats us as such. And the big mistake all the safety campaigns make is that they are all targeting the wrong thing!
    The tv advertisements I remember involve a guy running into the back of a truck, a guy in a ute loosing it on a bend avoiding a truck and tacking out a car coming the other way , and a guy weaving through heavy traffic going too fast and taking out some pedestrians. All these occurred in full daylight in the dry with excellent visibility and all were avoidable at the speed indicated or even higher speeds had none of the drivers panicked! Because that is the real cause of those accidents panicking and doing the wrong thing.
    As a motorcycle rider I have learned to constantly scan ahead and run scenarios as what to do should that car pull out or that kid run out or that truck turn right in front of me, I do this almost subconsciously and in a fraction of a second so that I will almost always make exactly the right choice in an emergency. This is an ability honed over many years of riding and driving above the 85th percentile, and the only times this has failed me is when someone has done something extremely wrong just at the wrong moment and the only way to avoid them would be to teleport.
    By slowing down the speed of traffic you don’t make it any safer in fact you make it far more dangerous, at slower speeds driving becomes boring and mundane and the attention slips ,people who can’t multi task start fiddling around and panic when some thing happens or they don’t see the pedestrian crossing the road or the bike stopped ahead and plow into it.
    And what’s worse is thanks to the lack of education about what is actually dangerous they fail to slow down in the wet etc and keep a proper distance and plan ahead.
    Thanks to speed kills and wipe off five and all the other misguided and mis targeted campaigns people stick to the speed limit (or oddly do sixty in an eighty zone and seventy in a sixty zone) they tailgate and they fall asleep!

  4. The two main issues I see is that this policy of revenue / policing is bringing the Police service into disrepute, secondly when talking to ex serving members up to 30% of fatalities are suicide. No matter what preventive measures are taken this will always happen as this is a mental health matter and not a enforcement issue. To date I have not seen any official comment on this. Serving members know the issue but are bound by law not to discuss it, how about we start talking about the real issues here,

  5. Its all about revenue raising as a motorcyclist who has been booked to many times on the GOR for exceeding 80 km now they have reduced it to 60 km in the twists. how do you do that with out getting booked you will come in to a set at the recommend speed then exit into the next bend etc, etc when you finally get the chance to take your eyes off the road you find you are over the speed limit. The great ocean road was 100 km years ago and the speed limit was reduced due to the rubber necks who are to busy looking at he water instead of the road.We seem to be constantly reducing speed limits for individuals who should not be on the road in the first place.

  6. There is a mountain of evidence mostly from Europe that indicates the ‘danger’ to road users is extended hours of travel on the roadway, leading to fatigue, resulting in accidents. The solution is to have ‘appropriate’ speed limits, proper training and roadways. Consider driving from Melbourne to Sydney on the Hume Highway. A “Fatalities per hour” overview needs consideration. Theoretically, If the journey took 12 hours but could be reduced to 9 hours, the fatalities on that journey over a year should/could be reduced by 25%, or more. This is well understood overseas, however it radically interferes with revenue collection, masquerading as road safety. The ‘anomaly’ is MORE people get killed sticking to absurdly low speed limits, because their exposure time is increased past the point on the graph, where any “safety” is a priority. This is the “elephant in the corner of the room”; it’s also a disgusting example of authorities having blood on their hand, whilst milking the public, and calling it “road safety”. Disgraceful.

  7. A very precise and compelling argument. Like all such clear reason, it is ultimately defeated by brutal rationalism – the modern replacement for humanist reason. We all suffer. But we do nothing about it.

  8. Without commenting on the gist of this article, can we please cease the comparisons with EU countries, i.e. “Germany”? We have an enormous country with a small population. Our road network is vast, and our capacity to develop and maintain it relatively limited. On top of that we have extreme weather events that regularly degrade our roads, the likes of which EU countries don’t generally experience. Drive/ride to the conditions.

  9. For the perfect example of the failure of this policy look at Sydney: frustrated and angry commuters, business losing billions, and still the RMS persist in lowering speed limits, phasing traffic lights to stop the flow at every set, and building hopelessly inadequate roads. It’s a debacle. The whole department is not fit for purpose and should be scrapped.

  10. Open speed limits were abolished by the Northern Territory Labor Government in 2006 and replaced by a maximum limit of 130km/h. More people died on Territory roads (307) in the six years after than in the six years before the change (292).

    Then road was then derestricted again on a government change, and as far as I’m aware, there were no serious accidents. Then the latest government reinstated the 130Kmh, citing improving safety (from zero?). Today a family of six have been variously injured in a rollover and crash in to a rock face.

    Clearly, the plethora of experts are simply WRONG. There is no way that the irrefutable evidence of the last eleven years of on-again, off-again limits could be construed to support the lower limit being safer.

  11. I just drove the New England Highway (cattle track) double demerits. Plodding a long at 100 then almost stop to 50 for what might be a town of 10 houses. Then a speed camera just before the 70 sign 500m then 100. I spent the whole day changing gears. 30 years ago the speed limit was easy 100 on open roads, 60 in built-up areas, 80 everywhere else. Didn’t need a GPS with speed zones enabled to make sure you were sticking to the speed limit.

  12. The lowering of speed limits is becoming a plague, have you noticed a national trend to lower the speed limit on all the new or re-built roads. As an example we have a road that had been gravel for years, with a 100 kph speed limit. When the road was recently sealed the speed limit was dropped to 80 kph!

  13. My wife and I traveled by car down the East Coast of USA then across to the West Coast.
    We did not have any issues with speed or police after having driven 15,000 miles.
    The Police there appear to have as their main goal, to keep traffic flowing safely.
    They do not, in my experience, stop vehicles for exceeding the posted speed limit, unless the vehicle is traveling at a dangerous speed (that could be traveling far faster than the majority of vehicles on the road).
    I usually kept with the flow of traffic on any given road, which in some cases meant I was exceeding the posted speed limit by 15 – 20 miles per hour (NOT kph).
    The advice from my American friends was, do not be the fastest car on the road.
    What I did notice was most Freeways had a Slow Speed Limit posted, and it was far more likely that a driver would be “booked” for driving too slow.
    While driving in these conditions I noticed that I remained far more alert for much longer and drove safely.
    Even given that I was driving a Left Hand Drive vehicle on the opposite side of the road to which I had learnt to drive.
    There are apparently (from my observation) no fixed speed cameras in USA.
    I did observe Police using hand held radar guns, and was ignored while doing 15 mph over the posted limit.
    Speed limits on freeways are anywhere from 65 mph to 85 mph depending on the State you are in.
    I appeared to me that traffic flowed safely and very few drivers drove at extreme levels.
    A posted speed limit will not stop a maniac driver from driving recklessly and possibly having a fatal incident.
    The rest of the drivers on the road should not be forced to operate at less than optimum efficiency because of a few maniacs.
    The whole idea in the USA seemed to be keep traffic flowing, safely.
    It works there and their revenue is not dependent on catching unwary bored drivers and riders.

  14. It is time we faced reality, too many road deaths due to excessive speed.
    I propose 3 speeds max. 80 kph where 100 kph and above now exists.
    All metro 50 kph, and where 60 is current, and 30 kph for where 40 kph is current.
    All trucks, busses, and vehicles towing a caravan and Motor Homes travel in the left lane only.
    Mandatory stops every 2 hours for 15 minutes minimum.
    All vehicles to be fitted with speed regulators by 30 June 2021.
    If you are caught speeding, then no leeway over 1 kph above the speed limit.
    Install a proper GPS to monitor speed.
    It is going to take longer to get to your destination, but at least you have a better chance of surviving.
    These are tough times, and tough rules must now apply.

    1. Not sure if you’re serious, but I propose that in your slow motion utopia, that to maintain and even increase revenue, that fines be handed out for everyone doing within 3 kph UNDER the limit, just incase there is potential for them to slip a little or travel downhill and potentially speed. They should fine those evil doers not just for the crimes they do, but for the crimes they might do, or be close to doing.

        1. The problem is we perceive risk in different ways. In india people climb poles and wrap bare wires around other 240 vault bare wires and think it is perfectly safe while we would be horrified. So a safe speed for me is not a safe speed for you. Predicting risk and when things might go wrong is a fruitless exercise. Giving someone a fine is a government equivalent of telling someone to be more careful… now how is that going to actually fix the road toll. It isn’t. The next person that comes along will do the same thing. The focus on administrating controls and punishing peolple will not change behaviour. Engineering safer roads and vehicles has had a profound effect on road fatalaities because they allow the operator to fail safely. Assume everyone will at some point make N error and make sure when they do.. they survive. Take the humble.rumble strip. Make an error and the noise gives you a loud and clear message there is an error that needs correcting. While roadside barriers dont give you the opportunity to correct… you hit them and that’s when you know there was an error. Not too effective. The rumble strip snaps back your concentration to where it should be. It doesn’t fine you, it doesnt damage you or your vehicle. Simple elegant solutions like rumble strip are what is needed… not stacks of beurocracy and fines.

  15. I know this is an old post but I came across it looking to see if anyone else gets frustrated at the increasing slow speed zones lately. I moved out of Melbourne about a year ago and everytime I go back there’s a new stretch of road that’s been lowered. I just got a fine for driving 50 in a 40 zone which has always been a 60 zone. This road is always full of traffic so you need to concentrate more on the cars in front but after I saw the flash,I started looking more at the Speedo… And getting frustrated. My most recent trip there was at least 3 other new speed zones, all too slow for the road type and all frustrating and all took more attention to check speed. It’s increasing control and I believe is serves to keep us in a state of frustration and fear. The bit in the article that says it’s taking us away from our senses is spot on. Covid safety gone mad and The government working hard to remove all possible “risk” of living. I said as a joke when they started all the keep safe nonsense with covid, next they will tell us not to drive to be safe… Well it’s becoming increasingly annoying and soon the speed will be so slow that movement will cease and no one will bother to leave their house at all for fear of not being “safe”. Sounds funny but I can’t be far off. I’m so tired of being so much controlled, why are we all so complacent? We just pay the fine, we just wear the mask, to avoid causing trouble but we just keep getting more controls because we keep inadvertently saying yes!

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