Actually, we’re not. Crash data is collected primarily by police, and most often it is general duties officers with no real crash investigation training who attend crashes. Investigation into crash causality is not a high priority for the officers who attend most crashes.
What’s not debatable is that it is very dangerous to drive at a speed excessive to the prevailing conditions, or beyond the driver’s or car’s ability. The determination of ‘excessive speed’ is quite complex, yet it is a decision drivers must consider continuously. It is over-simplistic to suggest that exceeding the posted limit is always ‘excessive’ and that never exceeding the limit isn’t.
The term ‘speed’ has itself become so demonised and semantically promiscuous that its use defies common sense. It is commonly used to mean both ‘speeding’ and ‘excessive speed’, making meaningful debate impossible.
In truth, all crashes are speed related … because cars that are stopped cannot crash. Speed is an intrinsic feature of transport.
Speeding implies driving faster than the posted limit. Whether or not this is actually dangerous depends on many factors, including whether the posted limits are appropriate.
The only term that relates directly to road safety is ‘excessive speed’, which means driving dangerously fast. Our regulators know this, but include in their definitions of ‘excessive speed’ such bizarre phenomena as ‘trucks jacknifing’ (actually caused by brake and steering imbalances, not excessive speed) plus a raft of non-expert opinion that predisposes those at the coalface of crash reporting to nominate ‘excessive speed’ and thus promote current statistical theory.
When the world-renowned British Transport Research Laboratory commissioned research into crash causes that precisely defined what ‘excessive speed’ was, it found in 1999 that only 7.3 per cent of crashes were caused by it.
Bottom line: Is speed really linked to risk to the degree officially purported? If not, it means drivers should be concentrating on learning about many more variables than just their travelling speed.
It begs an obvious question: Where does the official speed-demonising data come from?
According to road safety researcher Peter Ivanoff, a former NSW police officer (15 years’ service, five years in the highway patrol and three more as a police driving instructor) “speculation, opinion and at best calculated guesswork routinely pass for fact as the cause of crashes”. He says that while in some cases, the ‘how’ of crashes is reasonably well understood, “we do quite poorly when it comes to understanding why they occur”.
This is why cause is so poorly understood in road safety policy. Ivanoff says it’s common for officers to link a crash’s physical outcomes with pre-determined criteria (such as speed) in the absence of conclusive evidence.
This is a convenient process, not an academically robust one. Drivers rarely choose to incriminate themselves, and investigation is not a high police priority at most crashes. The usual police agenda is to restore traffic flow, establish how the crash happened (not ‘why’) and take action against driver(s) deemed responsible.
Even when trained crash investigators turn up, Ivanoff says, a better picture of ‘how’ sometimes emerges, but ‘why’ is often no clearer. Crash investigations are commonly inconclusive. “What often becomes apparent … is the lack of a clear reason why the impact occurred, despite having information that indicates how the crash happened.” This is especially true of fatalities, where human factors (such as driver distraction or underlying mental state, such as anger or fatigue) are often impossible to establish. Ivanoff adds that the highly presumptuous “old chestnut” of reasoning – if the driver had been going slower perhaps the crash could have been avoided – often leads to an expedient determination of excessive speed in the absence of conclusive evidence.
Many cars run off otherwise good roads for no apparent reason. Even the best crash investigators are unable to forensically decompile the crash to the extent that it is possible to determine whether the principal cause was falling asleep, distraction, swerving to avoid an animal and subsequently losing control, or the intent to commit suicide. If a high-energy impact occurs with a rigid roadside object, damage will be significant, and it is very easy to nominate speed as an easy option.
Data from police crash reports is received and ‘processed’ by state regulators, something that occurs, apparently, in secret – at least in the NSW RTA. Ivanoff says the determination of cause by the RTA happens without any reference to the people involved in the crashes or to those who conducted the investigations. “This is a process that forms conclusions about specific causal factors from data that does not provide a basis from which to draw such conclusions,” he adds. “I was particularly keen to study the exact workings of [this process], as well as the roles and qualifications of those involved but unfortunately the RTA refused to participate in my research.
“Experience has shown me that losses of control primarily occur because of a failure on the part of drivers to recognise and respond to hazardous road conditions. Poor judgement, poor risk perception, ignorance of risk, inattention, complacency, poor driver education and unsafe road environments are all more significantly involved as causal factors of road trauma [than] speeding.” Many of these criteria, conveniently, do not even exist as causes to be recorded on any database as far as the RTA and its counterparts are concerned.
Ivanoff says the system is rife with inequity. He claims that while only three per cent of road trauma occurs in 110km/h zones, speed traps in these regions predominate. Why? Authorities claim enforcement is “intelligence driven” but Ivanoff argues the “deployment of mobile speed detection is much more designed around the [convenient] acquisition of targets”.
He adds that the system supports itself. “State governments continue to fund and use statistically derived research to justify their policies of road trauma reduction when clearly, actual results show the research is inaccurate and/or misleading.” In other words, a system pre-disposed to identifying speed as a major contributor to crashes exists. This justifies a regulatory obsession with speed that leads to greater speed-related enforcement initiatives when perhaps better road safety solutions exist, such as public education about risk management or roadcraft. Certainly there is no ‘church and state’ style separation of research and enforcement policy. One hand feeds the other.
Even when short-term road-death reductions take place, the regulators are quick to claim all the glory. No control is made, nor credit given, for economic factors, better vehicle safety technology, improved roads or more effective medical treatment. In these situations politicians like to claim it is they alone who are ‘winning the battle’ by ‘getting tough’ on drivers.
Two-thirds of road death is not speed-related.
“32% of fatal crashes in metropolitan areas are speed related”–NSW RTARoad Safety 2010 Speed Management Action Plan
“During 2005 21 per cent of Queensland’s road toll was speed-related”–Queensland Transport website
“Speed is a factor in about one-third of [fatal and injury] crashes”–WA Office of Road Safety website
State Government road regulators Australia-wide broadly agree that excessive speed is a ‘contributing factor’ in (not a cause of) around one-third of all road death.
This information leads to claims such as: “Speeding is the single most significant factor in road fatalities” – in this case by the NSW RTA. This concept has been enthusiastically embraced and marketed.
Logically, however, if speeding is a factor in one-third of fatalities, it is not a factor in two-thirds of road death.
In other words, two-thirds of road death occurs at, or below, the speed limit. And what is being done about that?
When you drill down into the so-called ‘speed related’ deaths, worrying trends emerge. Of the speeding drivers in fatal crashes:
Source: NSW RTA Speed Problem Definition and Countermeasure Summary
Crash Prevention Australia Position Statement:
1. A worrying minority of antisocial drivers place themselves and others at risk by engaging in high-risk behaviours – such as excessive speed in concert with drink-driving, lack of occupant restraint and driving while unlicensed. This is not the limit of their anti-social behaviour, which includes aggressive driving, intentional risk taking and not paying enough attention. This minority needs to be aggressively targeted and removed from the driving population.
2. Drivers must be taught that complying with the speed limit alone is not enough to prevent crashing and mitigate on-road risk. It is easy to be speed compliant and also, at the same time, a dangerous driver.
3. A singular regulatory obsession with speeding enforcement can, at best, address only one-third of the problem. More action is required – principally education and encouragement about risk management while driving.
4. Booking otherwise responsible motorists for minor speeding offences – particularly when they are not otherwise driving dangerously – does not appreciably serve the interests of road safety, but does substantially damage public confidence in the police, the road transport system, and the law. (It’s a well known, but little-reported fact that within the police forces, the highway patrol is referred to by other police as the ‘jury wreckers’.)