There isn’t a single facet in life where Australians are so comprehensively conned in the same way as they are with the enforcement of speed limits.
Note that I didn’t say ‘the enforcement of speeding’ here.
Saying that ‘speed kills’ is a most factually correct point of physics because the human body is unable to withstand such forces as that created by an object moving them, then suddenly slowing them from speed. So when authorities state that, you can’t argue … but you can argue that they’re just stating the obvious.
‘Speeding’ is a more relative term that may be applied to driving too fast for the conditions or too fast compared with those surrounding them. In short, speeding is very different to exceeding the speed limit, and here the problem lies.
Speed limits in this country are rigidly enforced. We’re told, ‘There’s no such thing as safe speeding’, and if you go 3km/h over the limit you will die. That’s a fair enough assumption if speed limits were created by human beings with a modicum of intelligence, but they simply are not.
The examples of why could take up the rest of this piece, but I’ll use only some that are a handful of kilometres from my house.
Above: A Porsche Panamera is too wide for this 50km/h Sydney street.
I live in probably the tightest city street in the world – so tight that I can’t fit a Porsche Panamera down it when parked cars flank either side of the road. The speed limit for my street is 50km/h, a speed you simply cannot do without taking out cars and probably people. Venture into the city and that speed limit too feels too quick when there are hundreds of pedestrians around.
Get out onto the Anzac bridge, four lanes wide with good sight lines, and the speed limit is 60km/h. It used to be 70km/h, so apparently doing 65km/h a few years ago was safe, but doing it now is dangerous.
Maybe that’s a good first question to pose to authorities who chirp that speed kills. Or perhaps to the highway patrol officer who sits at the bottom of the crest of the Anzac bridge pointing a radar gun towards motorists who aren’t continually on their brakes in a tight tailgating bunch coming down the hill, all in the name of road safety.
Above: Anzac Bridge, Sydney.
If you think there may be a slight chance of defence for the reduced speed limit on the Anzac bridge – just 10km/h higher than my Panamera-quashing laneway remember – just keep travelling onto the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Unlike the Anzac, which has a thick concrete divider almost entirely eliminating the chance of a head on accident, the SHB does not have such a divider so there is every chance of a head-on. In fact, maybe there’s more chance because the middle lane changes direction depending on peak flow. Yet the speed limit on this bridge is 70km/h.
Incidentally, the NSW government a few years ago allowed motorists to name the roads which they thought had an inappropriate speed limit and the top 100 most popular roads would come in for a review. Guess which came in number one spot? You guessed it, the bridge that crosses Glebe Island named to commemorate our diggers. Reckon many other limits were changed? They weren’t, but ones that did mostly went down.
Above: Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney.
In other blindingly contradictory speed limit movements, Parramatta Road is 60km/h but parts of the technically identical Victoria Road that runs parallel to it is 70km/h. Except for the bit where it’s 60km/h, flat and four lanes over a bridge where the Highway Patrol sit with their gun.
So, we’ve established that speed limits are not created by intelligent people. There are holes in the system, and therefore the system cannot be respected. Yet these loose, arbitrary digits with a red circle around them are enforced more rigidly than in any first world country I’ve been to, most of which interestingly have higher speed limits.
Not only are they harshly enforced, however, but sneaky tactics are used by the highway patrol to enforce them. Sneaky? Is that too harsh? No.
Above: Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney.
In addition to the Anzac bridge example – waiting downhill on a stretch of road NSW citizens all believe has a too-low limit – and the Victoria road bridge example where the cops seize upon a speed limit change to ‘catch’ motorists, there are other much worse examples.
At the start of the Sydney-Newcastle Pacific Motorway, formerly called the F3, there is an 80km/h limit that exists for far, far too long. The road is straight and three lanes wide, the on-ramp well past and the motorway officially has begun. Yet in the dark of night, the highway patrol will sit 100 metres before the switch to 110km/h and shoot down anyone who dares to speed up before the sign.
One evening recently while vehicle testing doing laps of the motorway for an economy drive, I saw three people shot down within the hour.
On the rear bumper of the highway patrol car reads, ‘THERE IS NO EXCUSE’.
Excuse me? So let me get this straight: before you even open your mouth to an officer, he won’t be accepting any reason for exceeding 80km/h on a perfectly straight bit of three-lane highway that turns to 110km/h in a hundred metres with no change to surfacing and conditions? What can the police officer possibly say to argue the case?
Is this primary school? Well, it would be, except kids are no longer hit with a stick into submission like motorists are.
When ‘speeders’ get a reminder notice to pay their fine in the mail, they’re politely reminded (or is that bullied?) that should you choose to fight the case, “less than 4 per cent of reviews result in the recipient not needing to pay the penalty” and “less than 1 per cent of penalties result in a not guilty verdict in court”.
Those who travel between Goulburn and Sydney will know that a particular long downhill stretch of Hume highway is also a favourite with the highway patrol.
When driving back from Melbourne last weekend, at a mind-numbing 110km/h, I was surprised to see the HP weren’t at that spot. Then I hit the resume button on the cruise control to just over the limit only to see the HP had pulled over someone ahead.
Above: Tail-gating on M7 Motorway, Sydney.
A friend of mine was once pulled over for overtaking a truck quickly and efficiently at 125km/h, and the patrol officer simply booked him, told him to use cruise control and walked off. Use cruise control? Oh yeah, switch off and contribute to the 20 per cent of fatalities on our roads caused by fatigue.
Every single day around three highway patrol cops will sit on Sydney’s newest motorway, the M7, which has perfect surfacing, perfect visibility and every safety net, barrier and run-off cushion imaginable. The speed limit for this perfect bit of road is 100km/h.
The net effect of all this stick-whacking is a scared and timid Australian motorist that sometimes also make a dangerous one.
Above: 80km/h old (top) and 100km/h new (bottom) sections of the Pacific Highway, New South Wales, with just 20km/h speed difference.
We all know that a lack of driver training has created some disastrous driving standards, but keeping to the speed limit, on the M7 for example, sees many motorists in perfectly good cars driving in a tailgating bunch of frustration, and often lingering in the blind spots of swaying trucks.
All the while highway patrol sit there with a well-aimed gun.
On a German autobahn, by contrast, which technically is little different to something like the M7 motorway, cars pass quickly and efficiently, drivers keep their vision up and indicate with plenty of time, and traffic flows.
Above: Derestricted autobahn, Munich, Germany.
When derestricted zones end and speed limits come in, people slow down enough to give them respect, if not within 3km/h of the stated limit.
‘Experts’ such as those at the government-funded Monash university chirp that speed kills from their ivory tower, printing endless streams of data and statistics that indicate you will die if you go 1km/h over the limit.
Yet people such as the boss of Mazda and the head of safety globally at Mercedes-Benz can see the real-world evidence of frustration and poor driving that lingers on our roads just like you and I can.
Above: Tail-gating on the M7 Motorway, Sydney.
So we’ve established that our speed limits are flawed and cannot be respected, we’ve seen tricky tactics used by highway patrol to catch people, and we’ve seen the effect that has on the driving public. That’s without even mentioning the growing number of fixed speed cameras or poor road engineering standards.
Which brings us back to the ‘speed kills’ mantra: why does exceeding the speed limit kill us in Australia, yet in Europe with 130km/h-plus speed limits lots of people are alive?
It’s the final questioning nail in the coffin of anyone who simply says ‘don’t speed’. Australians may be known as a laid-back bunch, but in this case, sadly, all we continue to do is bend over…