A study shows it’s ignorance of the facts that steers our hostility to lowering limits, say Marion Sinclair and Hector Eliot.
Cape Town - A recent research paper undertaken by Marion Sinclair and Ian Steunenberg of the University of Stellenbosch examined attitudes among transport specialists towards lowering urban speed limits. It was revealing of the lack of understanding of the role speed plays in road crashes, even among traffic experts.
The less the interviewee knew about the international body of evidence supporting reduced speed limits as a means to lower road deaths, the more likely they were to oppose lowering the limits.
This is a strong indication of why the South African public is so vociferously opposed to lowering our speed limits, which are high by the standards of developed countries with low numbers of road deaths, particularly in our urban areas.
Essentially, we don’t know the facts. We are thus swung by emotive arguments unsupported by evidence, such as “international experience doesn’t hold true in South Africa”, “all we need are a lot more traffic police” or “lowered speed limits will make journey times longer and harm the economy”.
As a nation, we are also suspicious of the motives of the government and thus tend to seek hidden agendas such as “they want to lower speed limits to increase the number of fines issued” regardless of the absence of supporting evidence or that crashes cost the state far more than fine revenue can compensate for.
What are authorities to do, in the face of such staunch public opposition on the one hand and scientific consensus on the other?
As a frequent commentator on the Cape Argus SMS line points out, the government has a duty to protect citizens in this regard and, while the Western Cape compares reasonably favourably to South Africa as a whole, road deaths in the province are on a par with Russia, a country notorious for its lawless driving.
But as a democracy, the government cannot simply ignore public opinion.
The current low levels of public knowledge around the role of speed in road deaths and injuries mean a lowered limit runs the risk of losing public support, which could indeed reduce compliance even further.
As a first step, the level of knowledge needs to be improved, and to this end, we have published a fact sheet on the Western Cape government’s road safety website, www.safelyhome.westerncape.gov.za, which lays out the basics.
It can be summarised as follows: Speed has two main roles in crashes. First, the faster you drive, the greater your chance of crashing, largely because you have less chance to respond to unexpected hazards. Second, the faster you drive, the worse the outcomes of a crash will be, because of the forces involved.
Also, the body of evidence indicates that the key effect of lowered speed limits is not increased compliance, it is a decrease in the mean speed travelled on the road.
Scientific research, proved in multiple studies over the decades, has shown that even tiny changes in mean speed travelled equal considerable decreases in fatalities, such as a drop from 120 to 119km/h leading to a 3.8 percent decrease in fatalities (cited in studies in 2009, and 1982).
Finally, vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians, disproportionately suffer fatal and serious injuries as a result of speed-related crashes. Children are particularly at risk.
In the Western Cape, 118 children were run over and killed last year. Fifty-seven of these children were under five. Without attempting to apportion blame for these tragedies, the evidence is overwhelming that, had the motorists who struck these children chosen to drive even a little bit slower that day, many of those children might still be alive. The facts are available, they are absolutely compelling, and we would like to urge anyone with an interest in making our roads safer to examine them.
* Marion Sinclair is associate professor of transportation engineering and road safety at the University of Stellenbosch. Hector Eliot is the chief director of road safety co-ordination at the department of transport and public works of the Western Cape.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.