We are constantly told that Australia has a huge road toll. Every holiday break and long weekend there are reports of how many people were killed, amid inferences that this is a major and growing tragedy.  

Equally constant is the assertion that the underlying cause is speeding. There is a never-ending campaign, complete with gory advertisements warning of lifelong injuries, telling us to slow down. The message never varies – below the speed limit is safe, above the limit is not. Indeed, we are told that even 1km/hr above the speed limit increases the likelihood of serious injury and death. Vacuous journalists blame speed for almost every accident they cover. 

And should we fail to heed the message there are speed cameras, aerial monitoring, highway patrols and double demerit periods to remind us.  

In reality, driving on Australian roads is safer than it has been for over fifty years. Road fatalities, both absolute and relative to the population, have been steadily falling.  Whereas in 1970 there were 3,798 road fatalities, equal to 30.4 fatalities per 100,000 people, in 2022 there were just 1,194 fatalities, a rate of 4.6 per 100,000. 

Nobody wants to increase deaths and injuries on the roads

Most of the decline occurred prior to 2000 following the introduction of seat belts, improved road design, vehicle safety upgrades such as disc brakes and impact resistance, and limits on drink-driving. 

But it has continued up to the present time: in the decade to 2012 the rate of deaths relative to population decreased by an annual average of 4.2%. In the ten years to 2022 it fell by an annual average of 1.9%. 

The bottom line is, Australia’s road toll is a fraction of what it once was and continues to fall. Fewer people die in road accidents than from the flu or Covid. And yet, rather than celebrate this success, government perpetuates the fiction that things are bad and getting worse. Moreover, despite quite minor changes to speed limits over the period (slight increase on highways and slight reduction in the suburbs), it insists that excessive speed is the primary culprit.   

All this while most of Europe, which has overall higher speed limits than Australia, has lower road death rates. That includes Germany, where there are no speed limits on major autobahns. 

Responsibility for this myth lies with the National Road Safety Strategy, prepared every few years by transport and infrastructure bureaucrats from the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments. For many years it has led a crusade with the broad aim of significantly reducing road trauma, resulting ultimately in zero deaths and serious injuries (which it defines as anyone admitted to hospital, irrespective of seriousness or the length of stay), by 2050. 

It argues speed is a key element in all crashes, and that this necessitates lower speed limits and additional enforcement. State governments, which collect tens of millions in speeding fines, dutifully go along with it. 

Equally constant is the assertion that the underlying cause is speeding.

While very high speeds can obviously lead to more serious accidents, the data shows that deaths occur at any speed. Indeed, achieving zero deaths and injuries from road accidents is only feasible if everyone walks (even then, some would die of heart attacks). That would clearly be unacceptable to the community, which implicitly accepts a certain level of deaths and injuries as the price of convenient travel.

The elevation of speed limits to icon status is both dishonest and absurd. Those responsible for setting limits, road safety experts and traffic engineers in the public service, are determining the trade-off between convenient travel times and the road toll for the entire community. If speed is truly the demon we are led to believe, they are essentially deciding how many people should die.  

If this all sounds familiar, with memories of recent events during the Covid epidemic, that is not surprising. The gross overstating of a public health risk; a determination to mitigate that risk without regard for economic or social consequences; an assumption that the public are not competent to make their own decisions about bearing that risk. It’s all the same. 

As with Covid, it amounts to a classic case of gross bureaucratic overreach. It is the public, not bureaucrats, who ought to determine the trade-off between travel convenience and the road toll. (There is even an internationally recognised method of achieving this, known as the 85th percentile formula.) It is the public, not public health bureaucrats, who should decide whether the road toll warrants greater priority than other causes of death and disease. 

Nobody wants to increase deaths and injuries on the roads, but a risk-free society is not a rational public health objective. Road users are not sinful children and should not be viewed as a source of government revenue, and public health bureaucrats should not be allowed to play God.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Australia is odd, the speed limits on the open road are too low, yet the speed limits in suburban streets are too high.
    110km/hr on the Hume Highway is a joke, it should be 130km/hr, yet the default speed limit on a quiet residential street is ridiculously high, 50km/hr in most places, and should be 30km/hr.

  2. I love it!
    Just thinking how to align this with the liberal democracy philosophy of negative rights and duties: so, rights to NOT be interfered with, and duties NOT to do harm. The safety belt rule strikes me as contravening both: imposing seat belts on the driver is an interference, and it actually makes it more likely that a driver may drive in a way that harms others, especially pedestrians and cyclists.
    And so, taking into account the higher number of pedestrians and cyclists in built up areas (in contrast with highways) … perhaps there should be a rule that BANS driver seat belts in built up areas?

    • “it actually makes it more likely that a driver may drive in a way that harms others, especially pedestrians and cyclists” is an assertion without merit.

    • The price we pay for a publically funded health system is to impose restrictions such as seat belts and helmets. The rules also act to educate/train people to do the sensible thing, and the older version of me is glad that such rules were imposed on the younger version of me!

  3. David’s case is made by the presenters in this webinar from AustRoads where Jessica Truong, the winner of the Women in Road Safety Award presented by Austroads at the 2023 Australasian Road Safety Conference states that permitting ANY deaths is unethical. She unironically proposes the removal of driver compliance as a factor by the simple expedient of remote speed control of vehicles.
    Don’t you see? It’s EVIL to be able to drive at a speed other than the posted limit. It’s evil to be in control of your own vehicle. The only ethical course of action is for the state apparatchiks to control how fast your car can travel, where it can travel, how long and at what times.

    Webinar: Is Zero Road Trauma Possible?
    Publication no: WEB-ZRT-24
    Published: 8 February 2024
    https://vimeo.com/911064419
    https://austroads.com.au/publications/road-safety/web-zrt-24

  4. The blanket assertion that “speed kills” is obviously nonsensical, but there does need to be some nuance.

    There is, after all, a huge difference between doing 80 km/h in a suburban street where children, cyclists, stray dogs, etc., abound, and 150 km/h on an open highway. Speed limits make sense in heavily urban, residential areas, much less so on highways.

    It is also true that the monomaniacal obsession with speed can be counterproductive. Unfortunately, it is also typical of the mindset of bureaucrats and activists. A problem solved, after all, is an existential crisis for an activist. Similarly, bureaucrats have to continue to justify their existence.

    Both groups, then, having solved the big problems, instead of moving on, stay fixed and obsessively quibbling over increasingly vanishingly small chimaeras.

  5. “Net zero emissions”, “zero road tolls”, “zero Covid deaths”. I see a pattern here. Forever ruled by the one-dimensional thinking of bureaucrats who we’ve allowed to rule us for decades. Unless they are removed from power, we can look forward to more of the same.

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