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Is The Speed Limit Outdated?

It’s been argued that because today’s cars and today’s roads are better and safer than they used to be, the old speed limits ought to be raised to reflect this.  After all, they’ve got a limit of 130 km/h in some bits of Northern Territory (which, incidentally, came in about 10 years ago after having no speed restriction at all – road safety was cited as the reason for introducing limits).  Why shouldn’t the rest of the country get a higher speed limit?

We’ve probably all experienced the situation when road signs seem hopelessly out of date when approaching a corner that has one of those advisory speed limits.  You know the ones – those yellow signs with a number that usually accompany a curvy arrow indicating a bend in the road ahead.  The number is supposed to be the speed at which you can safely go around the corner.  However, in practice, we know that you don’t really actually HAVE to go at 55 km/h around a corner that’s marked 55.  If your tires are in good nick and if there isn’t anything nasty on the roads (oil, water, gravel, ice, etc.) and if your car has reasonably good handling, then you can go around the corner at a somewhat higher speed.  Not the full open road limit, of course – if you kept sailing around the corner at 100 km/h, you probably would come to grief and end up in the ditch.  But you don’t need to slow down to 55 km/h.

A lot of us treat those advisory speed signs as a sort of index giving an idea of how tight the corner coming up, kind of like a stationary rally navigator. A recommendation of 65 or 55 (on the open road where the speed limit’s 100 km/h) means that it’s a reasonably gentle bend, 45 means it’s a bit sharper, and so on all the way down to advisory signs reading 25 or even 15, which means you need to get ready for a hairpin turn and certainly need to slow down to negotiate it (but probably not all the way to 15 km/h).  After all, the camber of the road and the car features like stability control, traction control and the like all help to keep the car on the road.  Cars and roads are designed better these days.

We all know the recommended speeds for corners with advisory signs (known as “design speeds”) are well below the actual speed you can get around said corners comfortably and safely.  Are the open road speeds similarly outdated?

We’ve come a long way since these days – but do we need to go further?

The only trouble with the proposal to increase the open road speed limit to reflect the capabilities of new cars is that not every car on the road is a nice shiny new Mercedes  or Volvo  with all the latest safety features.  There are plenty of people driving beloved old classics, people driving ancient old bangers for budget reasons and those driving cars that aren’t in the category of old bangers but are still over 10 years old and don’t have all the latest whizz-but-not-bang active safety features.  The open road speed limit still applies to these drivers as well as to those with new cars.  And these older cars may not be able to handle the corners the way that newer ones can.

What’s more, some road users aren’t cars.  Trucks, bikes, motorbikes, farm tractors and horses are legitimate road users that one encounters out in the countryside.  You’re not going to find a pushbike, a horse or a farm tractor going anywhere near even the existing road speed limit, and the greater the mismatch between the speed of your car and the (lack of) speed of what’s in front of you leads to greater frustration, increased impatience and an increased likelihood of taking stupid risks.  And we know that although higher speeds are fine when everybody does what they’re supposed to, if things go wrong, they make the consequences worse.

We also need to remember that the cornering design speeds and the like are often designed with heavy trucks (including road trains) in mind.  These need more space and a lower speed to negotiate corners for obvious reasons.  Because these vehicles are very important for trade and the economy, all the government-funded researchers into road design, etc. spend quite a lot of time considering the needs of trucks.

The other thing is that even with a higher speed limit, you still need to slow down to go around a corner.  If they do decide to put up the speed limit, I doubt they’ll go and fix all the advisory signs to reflect the new speed limits for cost reasons.  They probably won’t add new ones either.  (Possibly it’s this cost factor (plus the fact that they could lose out on some speeding fines) that stops The Powers That Be from raising the speed limit.)  This means that if you’re cruising along at 130 km/h and spot a sign telling you that there’s a bend with a rating of 55 (OK, a design speed of 55 km/h), you’ve got less time to slow down to the right speed, which means that you have to brake harder… and that’s probably going to be tougher on your car and/or create a few extra risks.  You do know that you’re supposed to brake on the straight approaching the corner, don’t you?

The other issue is that the speed limit (and the speed at which we all go around corners) is safe when conditions are good, i.e. when the light, road surface, traffic conditions, vehicle conditions and road surface.  If it’s rainy, if it’s dark, if the sun’s at a horrible angle shining right in your eyes, if there’s gravel on the road, if bitumen has bled onto the road surface thanks to a bout of extra hot weather, if there’s ice on the road… it’s not safe to go full speed.  To paraphrase The Stig, if the road surface is shiny for any reason, slow down.

There’s one other argument against raising the speed limit: what I’ll have to call the larrikin factor.  No matter what the speed limit is, having any limit whatsoever will irritate a certain type of driver who doesn’t want to be told what to do.  She/he (I’m going to stick my neck out here and make the generalization that it’s more likely to be “he”) doesn’t want their freedom curtailed at all, and any speed limit – even if it was 150 km/h – feels like an imposition.  There will always be those who push the limits, no matter what those limits are.  It’s a bit like the drinking age or age limits at night clubs: no matter what the age barrier is, we all know that there will be people sneaking in underage… and nobody really wants 13-year-olds in the nightclub, so it’s best to keep the age limit at 18 so the underage sneakers-in are going to be 16 or 17.  The same goes for the speed limit.  Some speeds really are stupid on public roads and places where the unexpected can happen, and if you raise the speed limit, there will still be idiots who go at these ludicrous speeds.  And if you raised the limit to 120 km/h, there would be people who whinged about this being too slow and how it ought to be 140…  Where are you going to stop?

So what’s the answer?  Should we raise the speed limit?  Here’s my personal take on the topic:

  • Definitely raise the speed limit on long straight stretches of open road. I’ve driven along these being good and going at the legal limit, and it felt like crawling.
  • Keep the limit on the rest of the open roads where it is. However, there should be tolerance so the cops don’t jump all over you if you stray 5–10 km/h over the limit.  After all, we don’t all have cruise control, and we are supposed to keep our eyes on the road rather than glued to the speedo.
  • Remember that the speed limit is a limit, not a target. If the conditions don’t permit it, don’t try to go at the full limit.

As for roads around town – well, that’s another story!

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