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School Zone Fiasco

Drivers face unworkable arterial road restrictions, while broader pedestrian safety issues remain ignored

It is 8:54am and I am standing in the middle of a school zone on one of Sydney’s busiest arterial zones holding a Bushnell digital radar gun and hoping like hell I don’t end up getting my head punched in as a result of this little ‘test’. I am trying to look as unlike a police officer as possible, which for me is not difficult.

The radar gun is accurate to plus or minus 1.6km/h according to the manufacturer’s specifications. School is due to begin within six minutes, and hundreds of harried drivers rushing to work are ignoring the 40km/h limit. This is not an exaggeration.

I start measuring speeding, a process I have allocated 10 minutes to – the critical 10 minutes closest to school kick-off. With the aid of the radar gun I record ‘only’ 50 speeders in the space of the next 10 minutes – one every 12 seconds on average – though in reality the actual number of speeding drivers is way beyond the capacity of one operator to measure, at least by a factor of five.

Almost half the traffic is doing it. Cars, semi-trailers, B-doubles, concrete trucks, light commercials and 4WDs. There is no predominant class.

I have decided to record speeding only beyond a self-prescribed 48km/h threshold. Everyone I can ‘ping’ from 20 per cent over the 40km/h limit upwards, basically. There’s no need to distort the results with the minor stuff.

The highest speed offender? Eighty-three kilometres per hour – double the limit, plus a bit. And 13km/h over the road’s 70km/h limit outside school zone times. Average speed of all 50 speedsters? Fifty-seven kilometres per hour.

Later that day, it’s 2:50pm and school will be out in 10 minutes. Another arterial road, another 10-minute window. Result? Forty speeding drivers detected, 75km/h the highest speed, 58km/h the average. Dozens upon dozens more speeding drivers pass unrecorded because I am again unable to keep up measuring and writing the results. The volume of speeding simply exceeds my capacity to measure it.

This would be enough to generate outrage in some camps … but should it?


Official Australian Transport Safety Bureau figures from the Fatal Road Crash Database ( reveal that five school-aged children have died in 40km/h zones in the past three years (to July 31, 2007). One died in the past 12 months, one the year before that, and three in the year before that. In the same period, a total of 59 school-aged child pedestrians were killed across all roads and times. Obvious question: what are we doing about the 54 children who get killed outside school zones? Are their deaths somehow less valuable? There is no official emphasis on this problem, at all. Even high-profile child pedestrian safety advocates like Rod Delezio, father of Sophie Delezio who was tragically and profoundly injured in two historic car crashes, is quoted in the media almost exclusively in relation to school zones and not child pedestrian safety more generally.

To put all this trauma into perspective, backyard pools kill 31 times more children than school zones, and negligence is a major contributor there, too. (Parents often prop the pool gate open, for convenience…) According to the Child Accident Prevention Foundation of Australia, about 155 Australian children have drowned in domestic swimming pools in those same three years as the five school-zone deaths. The Medical Journal of Australia says it is driveways (not school zones) where child pedestrians face the most danger (eight per cent of child pedestrian death occurs in driveways).

See our advice on driveways here.

Of course, being in a car (as opposed to outside it) is also fairly dangerous for children. School-aged children who died as passengers in cars totalled 189. And road death for the period totalled 4815 for all types of road users of any age – 657 pedestrians in total.

We needn’t be so parochially focussed on school zones when it is clearly all pedestrians who deserve a fair go on the road.


The general news media and politicians are a bad combination. The ABC recently gave the New South Wales Opposition a free kick when it proposed that a drop in speeding fines in school zones showed there was a “failure to deal with the problem”. It begs an obvious question: What problem? (Assuming, of course, that the purported ‘problem’ is trauma, and not a decline in revenue from fines.)

The Opposition’s road safety spokesman, Andrew Fraser, revealed that “only” 1500 in-school-zone fines had been issued in the last financial year – about half a fine on average for each of NSW’s 3000 school zones.

"The lack of police presence has meant that motorists continue to speed at school zones when children are leaving and going to school of an afternoon and morning," he told the ABC.

Why is the focus not on trauma?

Counterpoint from Police Minister, David Campbell: First, he said the drop in speeding fines in school zones reflected high-profile enforcement. He told the ABC: "Police are out there and enforcing those speed zone rules. We’ve seen some speed cameras installed in school locations as well. All of that means that people can be starting to get the message that it is inappropriate to speed in those 40km/h speed zones."

Not, presumably, the 90 speeding motorists I irradiated in a 20-minute span of one day last week and their five-for-one speeding counterparts…


Media conjecture was rife about what the drop in fines meant. People were indignant: Talkback radio went off. Speeding motorists were getting away with it! The cops weren’t working hard enough! Was half a fine per zone the best they could do?

Nobody stopped to look at the school zone safety record, however. Everyone from the campaigners to the pollies to the journos was obsessed with slinging mud instead. “Roads Minister Eric Roozendaal’s biggest achievement was the introduction of higher school zone penalties last May – and for that he deserves credit,” asserted Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. Obvious question: Why, since very few children are actually killed in them, and the most dangerous place for a child pedestrian is in fact outside a school zone?

Mr Roozendaal might have deserved credit had he instigated an urgent child pedestrian awareness campaign outside school zones, where the evidence shows it is sorely needed.

What has instead happened is that we have choked arterial roads with 40km/h school zones that a high proportion of motorists either ignore or do not see. All the pollies deliver is more enforcement: three-year ‘tests’ of flashing lights at 100 locations, in preference to spending the money and fitting them state-wide; 50 school-zone speed cameras, etc.

It remains very easy to miss a school zone if you are driving in an unfamiliar area. Flashing lights save licenses, not children.

The driving community’s confidence in such a regulatory system continues to erode because the regulation is not in line with the risks. It is administered for no purpose other than political point-scoring. No assessment is made of the appropriateness of a road segment for a 40km/h school zone. Arterial roads with 70 and 80km/h limit are restricted the same as quiet and otherwise 50km/h suburban streets with school frontages. Yet arterial roads often feature systematic pedestrian protection: elevated pedestrian footbridges and roadside barriers.

Roads ministers and top bureaucrats do not deserve credit for their ‘one size fits all’ approach to school zones. What we need is a ‘pedestrian aware’ driving culture – on every road. Because that’s where pedestrians die – on every road. That’s much harder to achieve than just nailing up a bunch of 40km/h ‘school zone’ signs, and bitching when fine revenue goes down.

Regulations administered with no intrinsic value have no underlying validity. They actually work in reverse, because drivers start disregarding the meaningful messages as well.

Funny thing was, what with all this radar-gun speed measuring and frenzied note taking I almost forgot to mention one other important variable I measured: pedestrians. The entrances to schools on arterial roads are generally in quieter side streets. Certainly the two test locations at which I set up the radar gun conformed to this model. And that meant for all of those 20 minutes I was busy noting all that speeding, not one child pedestrian (or parent) was anywhere in sight on the arterial road’s footpath. I have no doubt some of those speeders were actually dropping kids off (or collecting them) just around the corner.

Of those 90 speeding motorists forming my notional test sample, only 11 were travelling in excess of the what posted limit was outside school-zone activation times. And, of those 11, only two were breaching the non-school-zone speed limit by more than 5km/h. Fancy that.

If we are going to retain school zones in arterial roads, the flashing lights on those school zones are an urgent priority – not for the kids, for the drivers. Miss a school zone in a 70km/h arterial road and your license is toast. That makes it hard to earn an income and put food on the table.

We don’t need pedestrian-friendly zones so much as we need pedestrian-friendly drivers. We need pedestrian awareness everywhere, starting in the driveway at home. How hard can it be – seeing as every driver becomes a pedestrian the minute he or she leaves the car.

Bought to you courtesy of Learner’s Test