It’s important to give credit where it’s due. Auckland Transport’s Safer Speeds team deserves credit for a life-saving intervention that’s been flying under the radar, even as news headlines highlight the ongoing avoidable and heartbreaking harm to people just trying to get where they’re going.
AT has found that roads where speed limits were lowered on 30 June 2020 have experienced a 47 per cent reduction in deaths* in the 18 months following the changes, a reduction in all injury crashes of more than 25 per cent and greater than a 15 per cent reduction in serious injuries on these roads.
Total deaths and serious injuries (DSI) have reduced by more than 20 per cent.
Rural roads where speeds were changed on 30 June 2020 have seen a 71 per cent reduction in deaths and more than a 25 per cent reduction in serious injuries.
* Annual figures for the period 30 June 2020 to 31 December 2021, when compared to the prior five-year comparison period.
In other words: people are alive today who would otherwise not be – simply because speed limits were lowered on the roads they happened to be travelling on. This is nothing short of miraculous.
We don’t know who they are, because we don’t need to.
No names, no faces; because no headlines needed when you make it home alive.
Hey everyone, unfortunately we did see an increase between 2020 and 2021 (during lockdowns) but overall the deaths and serious injury statistics on roads where speed limits were adjusted have reduced. JR*
— Auckland Transport (@AklTransport) February 23, 2022
This is extra striking, given that it happened against the backdrop of an overall increase in road deaths and serious injuries. As Auckland Transport reported to the Board in March this year:
During calendar 2021 there were 59 deaths on Auckland’s roads, more than 60% higher than 2020 and the highest level of road trauma since 2017, as illustrated by Figure 1.
The other thing to note is that rural roads didn’t see fewer crashes as such, just less terrible outcomes: “on our rural network… the overall number of crashes is similar to pre-implementation, but the overall severity rates have reduced.”
In other words, with their work on lowering speed limits, the Safer Speeds team has been mitigating the effects of a transport system (and sector) that seems to be otherwise heading in the wrong direction.
Moving from piecemeal progress to wholesale wins
So while the overall picture is still alarming, these successful stats must give AT the confidence to take a much faster and more universal approach to implementing life-saving policy.
When it comes to winning the public confidence for systems change, the key is in demonstrating benefits as quickly and widely as possible. This means leading with a bold vision, and implementing an extensive programme that reaches everyone. It means using clear and strong messages: we can look after each other better on the roads. It means pushing beyond early public tentativeness to achieve results: these statistics speak for themselves. And it means trumpeting those results: we saved this many lives.
So far, AT has taken a step-by-step approach, phasing in safer speeds along three main paths:
- treatments in outer areas, where development has turned rural roads into urban streets but the speed limits were left unchanged, and where there’s general understanding that country roads have been operating with an unsafe limit for too long.
- “easy wins” in urban areas, e.g. the city centre and selected town centres; quiet residential zones with minimal rat-racing; schools around which speeds are already moderate; etc.
- targeted areas which have been “engineered” to encourage slower speeds, such as Manurewa.
The “easy wins” approach made some sense as an initial short-term strategy, to help show progress and grow public support. But the longer term strategy to actually save lives needs to be evidence-based. So, this is a critical moment to assess the evidence. For example, to shape future consultations and communications, it would be good to know things like:
- Where have the biggest speed reductions taken place? Were they from the “easy wins”, or in the more rural areas where “easy wins” weren’t the strategy – or both?
- On city streets where limits were lowered without other major engineering changes, have speeds fallen – and by how much? Does every driver take it down a notch when the limits were lowered, or is it mainly the extreme speeders at the top end?
But what does the public think?
We hear a lot about how you have to “bring the public along” when making changes, even ones that will save lives. After AT introduced the first tranche of safer speeds and accompanying road treatments in town centres and neighbourhoods, it commissioned surveys to find out what people thought. The results may (not) surprise you.
In the town centres, people said the streets felt safer – especially, but not only, around schools. They also noticed that more drivers were observing the limits, and said it felt significantly friendlier to walk and bike, with 1 in 5 respondents saying they were walking or biking more often.
And the neighbourhood surveys were even more striking:
Clearly, one of the ways to “bring the public along” is to actually make the change, so they can see that it works. So far, so good.
With one caveat: it’s crucial to check in with kids – because children are the public, too, as we are reminded in a fabulous new piece of research by Dr Julie Spray about the Pandemic Generation. Children’s voices are something we could stand to hear a lot more of in the transport realm.
So… why are we even talking about this? Why not just do it everywhere?
Good question: does every single street need to jump through a consultation hoop one by one? Why not just roll this approach out all over, given we know safer speeds save lives? (And creates a better environment for walking, scooting, rolling and riding – and reduces noise – and saves on petrol – and lowers emissions – and so much more?).
Part of the issue has been the legislation. On the one hand, it empowers AT to make these life-saving changes:
Under the Land Transport Rule: Setting of Speed Limits 2017, AT is legally obligated to investigate road speed limits and, where current road speed limits are found to be not safe and appropriate, it must make changes.
On the other hand, it requires a local authority to be confident that drivers will, on average, not go more than 10% faster than the new limit. This particular fishhook has slowed down the adoption of wider safe speeds – for example, when a local authority believes it needs to physically change the road to get drivers to meet that threshold, but the budget just isn’t available.
The good news is that an update to the legislation is on the way – and hopefully we’ll see new rules in place this year that will lead to more efficient and better coordinated speed management. (Updated 21 April 10.30am: sounds like the new legislation has been signed and is on its way!)
But even within the existing legal framework, bold things are possible. As Heidi wrote here back in June 2020, you don’t always have to change the road itself to change people’s speed:
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, [and] perceived appropriateness of the speed limit.”
You can achieve lower average speeds by treating whole areas at once, and with strong communications clarifying that 30 km/hr is the appropriate Vision Zero speed limit for cities. People get the message… when they’re given the message.
And then there’s the growing body of knowledge from other cities that are rapidly civilising their transport systems. Low traffic neighbourhoods and similar treatments can be delivered very cheaply, if done tactically. This means that – even within the existing legislation – the same money for engineering treatments could have been spread much more widely.
First (and last): do no harm
Amid a rising road toll – a wicked problem, with many factors – the proof that safer speed limits are working is a ray of hope. Auckland’s journey to safer speeds started with the understanding that it certainly couldn’t hurt. Now we have evidence beyond a shadow of a doubt that it actually saves lives.
So, what do we do with this knowledge?
In medical studies, there’s a point when interventions show such a dramatic benefit that it actually becomes unethical to keep giving the “control group” the placebo or hands-off treatment. If you were testing a Covid drug, for example, and saw figures like those at the top of this blog post, you’d have no trouble halting the experiment and making everyone better.
Now that we know what we know – and with more empowering legislation on the horizon, surely we can end the street-by-street experiment on safer speeds and go all out?
Anyone in a governance or leadership role should feel confident that nothing now stands in the way of delivering life-saving benefits to all Aucklanders without fear or favour. Just do it.
A departing executive whose overarching aspiration was safety might even consider it as a parting gift to the city. Why not?
And an ordinary citizen could share this knowledge with friends and neighbours and children and workmates, which would help make the next round of consultations and conversations about speed limits a lot easier for all of us.
Because who knows – the life you save might be your own.