Yesterday, Auckland Transport announced:
New and safe speed limits on more than 600 roads across Auckland will come into force from 30 June 2020 onwards.
In an email they also advised:
This tranche will be completed by November 2021.
It’s a huge relief that these changes bringing in safe speeds have not been cut in the emergency budget. The work Auckland Transport’s safety staff have done has been extensive and impressive.
In the end, though, it will be nearly four years between the Road Safety Business Improvement Review and the completion of just the first tranche of speed limit changes. In a separate post we’ll look at how AT could change the approach they take to get changes rolled out across the city.
In this post, however, I’m going to look at government’s role. The onus on government to ensure we have safe speeds has increased this year, with new guidelines from our peak roading organisation, and the signing of an international declaration about road safety.
It appears New Zealand must take faster action on safe speeds than the road controlling authorities can be expected to manage.
If approaching vehicles were travelling at 30 km/hr (or less), the fellow on the bike would indeed be able to make a safe decision to move. People in cars, too, benefit from safer speeds by being able to turn out of side roads safely.
Imagine if the government made decisions about our streets on the basis of keeping us safe and well, in the same way that our collective wellbeing was the priority during the Covid 19 pandemic.
If our speed limits matched the research (and the rhetoric), we’d see a big drop in people dying or getting hurt on our roads, but the outcomes would go far further. Neighbourhood streets would be quieter, communities more socially connected, and walking and cycling would be attractive. This would allow children to travel independently, adults to travel actively, and we’d find it easier to meet our health, environmental and climate goals.
New Zealand’s current speed limits
The Setting of Speed Limits Legislation was passed in 2017, nearly three years ago. In its summary of feedback, Waka Kotahi / NZTA explained a practice that is worrying:
The proposed Rule requires that [Road Controlling Authorities] must aim to achieve a mean operating speed less than 10% above the speed limit… Requiring a target mean operating speed of 10% above the speed limit is an achievable and reasonable measure of performance.
And yet: the road code says you can drive “at or below” the speed limit. The police say the speed limit is a limit, not a target. So – statistical definitions notwithstanding – no-one should ever aim to achieve a mean operating speed above the speed limit.
Furthermore, the posted speed limits are known to be unsafe:
A Transport Agency (NZTA) tool shows 87 percent of speed limits on New Zealand roads are higher than is safe.
In fact, the situation is even worse than that, because although this tool recommends speeds lower than what our roads have, the Vision Zero speeds we need are even lower. Sure enough, when Auckland Transport investigated this tool for its own purposes, it found:
the information is not appropriate or accurate enough for safe urban speeds through town centres.
In summary, this should NOT be the order:
Mean operating speeds
Posted speed limits
Speed limits recommended by Waka Kotahi’s tool
Submissions from the public showed a strong push for reduced speeds in general, and changes to the default speed limits:
A large number of submitters called for a general reduction in speed limits and with it, a reduction in the default speed limits of 50 km/h for urban roads and 100 km/h for rural roads…
But Waka Kotahi chose to avoid default speed limit changes:
Wholesale change to the default speed limits would be a high impact change and is not considered necessary or desirable…
Waka Kotahi is now a Vision Zero organisation, which requires an overhaul of this position.
Public opinion continues to be in favour of lowering the speed limits:
— Patrick Morgan (@patrickmorgan) May 13, 2020
In the meantime, we’ve had three years in which the government left the change up to individual road controlling authorities to sort out – piecemeal, slowly, with expensive area by area analysis, and painful engagement, consultation and signage requirements.
We can do better. Like the current pandemic, unsafe speeds are a national problem that needs to be resolved with alacrity by central government in a way that gives value-for-money and minimises the local effort required by authorities and advocates.
What should the speed limits be?
In February this year, Austroads adopted the following safe speed limits in its guidance:
- 30 km/h – Where there is the possibility of a collision between a vulnerable road user and a passenger vehicle
- 50 km/h – Where there is the possibility of a right angle collision between passenger vehicles
- 70 km/h – Where there is the possibility of a head on collision between passenger vehicles
- ≥100 km/h – Where there is no possible side or frontal impact between vehicles or impacts with vulnerable road users
Austroads is the apex organisation of road transport and traffic agencies in Australia and New Zealand. It publishes guidelines, codes of practice and research reports that promote best practice for road management organisations in Australasia.
Emergency safe speeds planned in Nelson.
Austroads’ guide Integrating Safe System with Movement and Place for Vulnerable Road Users highlights the importance of considering reaction times:
A driver travelling in a car at 30 km/h can stop for a pedestrian or cyclist in around 15m. A driver travelling at the urban default speed limit of 50 km/h can stop in around 31 metres and will still be travelling at 50 km/h when the vehicle reaches the hypothetical pedestrian or cyclist in the vehicle’s path when it reaches the conflict point at a distance of 15m. This impact speed coincides with a low chance of a struck pedestrian or cyclist surviving
The difference between 30 km/hr and 50 km/hr really can be the difference between no crash at all, and death.
In February 2020, the same month Austroads published its new safer speeds guidance, the New Zealand government signed the Stockholm Declaration, which commits us to comprehensive road safety improvements, including on speeds:
Focus on speed management, including the strengthening of law enforcement to prevent speeding and mandate a maximum road travel speed of 30 km/h in areas where vulnerable road users and vehicles mix in a frequent and planned manner, except where strong evidence exists that higher speeds are safe, noting that efforts to reduce speed in general will have a beneficial impact on air quality and climate change as well as being vital to reduce road traffic deaths and injuries.
Note the use of the term maximum road travel speed. The mean operating speed will need to be lower than this.
Many of our roads already have intuitive speeds way lower than the posted speed limits, but the posted limits encourage drivers to drive too fast for the conditions. This is never more clear than when you’re reminded of the “normal” speed limit after road works – as on this short street.
There is no remaining doubt that these speeds must be brought in. So why aren’t they being introduced immediately?
One spanner in the works is the idea that you need to change the road design to make the new speed seem intuitive. The excuse seems chiefly to be based on trying to prevent drivers from getting ‘unfair’ speeding tickets; a consideration of far less importance than trying to prevent people from dying.
And the argument is false:
- It ignores the fact that many of our speed limits are higher than the intuitive speed for the road.
- The science shows that if even a small area of a city receives speed limit reductions – without any other changes such as enforcement – the average speed comes down a few km/hr, which is enough to reduce injuries and death.
- When enforcement is provided as well as lowering the speed limits, the average speed comes down much more.
- Lowering default speeds nationally, with enforcement, may have an even higher effect than the studies on small areas, because doing this at scale could change the overall driving culture.
Roadwork to a higher standard will take time. This is why Auckland Transport is reducing speed limits as an immediate, cost effective and efficient way to decrease the number and severity of crashes in the Auckland region.
And on whether the road design is all-important anyway, research by Glen Koorey found drivers base their decision on what speed to travel at from a combination of different factors. The road design is not as big a factor as posted speed limits, the level of enforcement, and
the general societal/cultural norms for respecting laws, perceived appropriateness of the speed limit
I contend that people’s perception of the appropriate speed limit shifted during Level 4. And the level of respect for the law, in order to collectively keep our population safe, was impressive. But – so far – the government has squandered the opportunity.
The speed is surely incorrect for a street of this type? The same is actually true for almost every street in Auckland.
During Levels 3 and 4, many people ventured out onto their local streets on foot or bike and became better acquainted with their community. Children and beginners gained confidence riding their bikes on the streets. The danger that cars present when travelling at 50 km/hr suddenly become apparent to many people.
The public’s heightened awareness of safety, traffic noise and air pollution dissolved the usual resistance to suggestions involving change.
That was the moment to usher in a better driving culture, and it would have been a natural addition to the public health approach New Zealand was collectively pursuing. Had we been given default safe speed limits at the beginning of Level 4 – with police enforcement – a new driving culture would have had a chance to develop. As economic activity resumed, those lowered speed limits would have allowed people to continue walking and cycling, achieving the modeshift that change-averse officials claim is so hard to achieve.
New Zealand is strong enough to catch up on road safety
Last year, New Zealand’s speed conversation slipped into ethically murky places, with arguments that amounted to saying it was ok to sacrifice our loved ones in support of “The Economy”.
Today, things are different. We’ve seen different countries’ and leaders’ responses to the pandemic, and most of us have been disgusted at those trying to prioritise “The Economy” over people’s lives. Perhaps it is clearer now that our people are actually the foundation of “The Economy” – not something to be traded off against it.
Throughout the emergency, public health officials have had the ear of the prime minister. For the virus itself, she was receiving quality advice, and acting on it.
Were the public health officials giving her quality advice about the public health value of safer speeds and the need to act during the pandemic? If they weren’t, do they need some workshops about transport implications on public health? And are they aware of the Stockholm Declaration?
It is clear the onus is now on government to ensure our speeds are changed, comprehensively. The question now is, how are they going to do this quickly, using evidence, and democratically?
The public would probably have been most receptive during lockdown – hence the feeling that the government lost an opportunity. On the other hand, we can see the scale of our success in tackling the spread of the virus (touch wood!), so we can see the benefits of taking pre-emptive action to save lives. Memories are still fresh of those sunny autumn days when our streets felt safe enough to bike with children and to cross at will – and when we all saw with fresh eyes how intrusive a vehicle is when it barrels through a community at 50km/hr.
Now is the time to change the default speed limits so they are safe.
We know our Prime Minister can lead in tough times, and overcome barriers to helping keep each other alive and well. We don’t need to look any further for leadership strong enough to make the streets where we live the kind and resilient places they should be.
Best idea from a conservative that i’ve heard in a while pic.twitter.com/D0MBTTpS0o
— Ed Mendoza (@orangutanagram) April 27, 2020