Speed or safety?
A contentious issue, the lowering of speed limits will forever be hotly debated. It seems that, while it may work in theory, the reality might just be a waste of time, money and resources.
The recent Southern African Transport Conference (SATC) presented an opportunity to gain insight into some of the more salient issues affecting the South African transport industry. The likes of freight and logistics, public transport, legislation and regulation as well as infrastructure and traffic management offered a broad spectrum of topics, presented by some rather learned and high-ranking individuals.
The more than 80 papers could directly provide content for this entire magazine for quite a few editions, but I’ve chosen to focus on one specific subject here, presented by Stellenbosch University’s Ian Steunenberg – who accused South Africans of not wanting what they can see is good …
As you might have guessed, he dealt with some form of road safety – specifically the reduction of national speed limits (60 km/h in urban areas, 120 km/h on highways), a topic that has been hotly debated overseas (notably in the United Kingdom) for some time.
In the light of the glut of international research indicating that a reduction in speed limits returns a reduction of urban collisions and fatalities, Steunenberg questioned why local authorities have not yet chosen to follow the trend.
Steunenberg used a collection of qualitative data, disseminating a ten-item online questionnaire to 450 South Africans, selected from the 2013 SATC delegates. This meant that a high percentage of the sample were engineers and transport specialists (50 and 24 percent respectively). The study makes for interesting analysis, with the results pointing to somewhat of a mismatch of speeding perceptions and actions.
The numbers reveal that reckless driving, speeding and disregard for traffic regulations make up about 70 percent of the perceived cause of accidents; indicating, according to Steunenberg, that “it’s possibly a cultural thing in South Africa – we are prone to speeding”.
What potential, then, could a reduced urban speed limit hold? An unsurprising 40,5 percent said it’ll make very little difference – citing driver behaviour and a lack of enforcement for it possibly being ineffective.
The other 60 percent, though, thought it would see somewhat of a lowering in urban collisions and fatalities. Despite this number, only 21,2 percent would call for a decrease, the majority of respondents (70 percent) suggesting leaving the speed limits, but improving enforcement.
While some of our transport ministers have thrown the idea of lowering speed limits around in recent times – albeit with no concrete resolution as yet – the research sample suggested that there are a few stumbling blocks before the theory could become local reality. A lack of public support came into question, as well as (with so many instances of drivers ignoring the road laws) the ability of the authorities to enforce the law.
In this vein, it was revealed that most of the sample based their driving speed on the posted limit (although it was questioned why speed limits are sometimes seemingly not set according to road and/or environmental conditions) and over a third called for an innovative solution to enforcement – like average speed trapping.
Steunenberg concluded: “The willingness to see these trends implemented locally isn’t high. This suggests a somewhat outdated and complacent attitude among respondents; a paradox of misaligned attitudes with positive action. That’s probably the biggest obstacle in implementing reduced speed limits.”
Indeed, as the study indicates, we are aware of the risks speeding holds and the exponentially increased chance of fatalities the faster one drives. The majority of the sample seemed to not want them lowered, though.
I’m willing to guess this sentiment would hold true for the majority of South African drivers, and, if the limits were to be lowered, they would still be broken. Of course, there will always be arguments for and against.
If you ask me, we need to get our enforcement in order before (potentially meaninglessly) changing legislation. As one insightful delegate pointed out: “In South Africa we introduce a law; we don’t enforce it, and then introduce a stricter law to fix the problem.
“We need to begin with ensuring people stick to the 60 km/h limit, and then reduce the limit if that doesn’t make a difference. We can’t do it without strict enforcement; it will bring dangerous driver behaviour such as overtaking and big speed differentials.”