Call to lower SA speed limits
Cape Town - Western Cape road safety chief Hector Elliot has warned that it is high time that proposals to lower the national speed limit in order to curb road deaths were taken seriously.
In spite of “overwhelming” evidence that lowering the national speed limit would reduce the number of fatalities on our roads, the idea had yet to gain much traction, said Elliot, chief director for road safety co-ordination in the provincial Transport and Public Works Department.
Since the start of the festive season, scores of South Africans have already died on the country’s roads.
In one of the worst crashes this month, 10 people died and three were injured when two cars collided near Mahikeng in North West.
Video footage of the crash that killed Cape Town actor Thabang Sidloyi, 27, went viral earlier this month after his BMW convertible hit a wall on the N2, flinging Sidloyi from the vehicle.
The proposal to lower speed limits was last raised by then-national transport minister S’bu Ndebele in 2011. Although it never progressed beyond the discussion stage, in part because of widespread criticism from the public and some experts, Elliot said evidence that road traffic fatalities decrease when speed limits go down was today widely accepted by scientists.
“(It is) supported by research papers from academic institutions and governments across the globe,” said Elliott, who has long argued that lowering speed limits is one way to decrease the country’s high road fatality rate.
Every year about 14 000 people – 40 percent of them pedestrians – are killed in road traffic collisions, according to the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC).
About 1500 South Africans have been killed over the festive season alone every year for the past few years. The season covers the period from the start of December to mid-January – despite mass high-profile safety campaigns.
In 2011, the last full year for which the RTMC has made data public, 13 954 South Africans – both motorists and pedestrians – died on the roads. The organisation has not yet released data from 2012 and 2013.
AMONG THE WORST IN THE WORLD
In international comparisons, South Africa’s fatality rate is one of the worst. In the International Transport Forum’s 2013 Road Safety Annual Report, South Africa was the worst performer out of the 36 countries in the study.
All but two of the countries had experienced declines in road deaths since 2000, but South Africa’s fatalities had risen by half, in part due to more cars being on the roads.
The study also found that fewer than 2 percent of the country’s rear seat passengers wore seat belts.
Elliot, who supported Ndebele’s proposal to lower speed limits in 2011, said cutting limits would probably be resisted by some motorists, in part due to “misconceptions about the intentions behind speed control”.
“In Victoria, Australia, there was huge resistance when highway speeds were reduced from 110km/h to 100km/h. Fatalities dropped 20 percent,” he said.
Australia is often cited by proponents of speed control for successfully decreasing its road fatality rate.
Political pressure, said Elliot, led to the 110km/h limit being reinstated, with disastrous consequences.
“Fatalities (again) increased 20 percent, until finally the speed limit was reduced to 100km/h again. Fatalities dropped 20 percent again, and eventually even the most ardent supporters of high speed limits gave up.”
If lower speed limits were put in place in South Africa, Elliot said the move would initially be “even more unpopular” here than it was in Australia.
SPEED JUST ONE OF MANY FACTORS
In response to a query of whether it would support lowering the speed limits, the Automobile Association said it was important to note that speed was one of many factors that caused accidents.
“To curb the carnage on our roads it is important to follow a system approach, which includes driver fitness, vehicle fitness, driving behaviour, maintenance of road infrastructure across the whole network, and efficient and effective law enforcement,” said spokesman Marius Luyt, who pleaded for more visible traffic officers, a proposal also supported by Elliot.
Road Safety Action Campaign founder Richard Benson – also an advocate for lower speed limits – pointed to New York’s Vision Zero Road Safety Initiative as a “ready-made plan” that South African cities, or even municipalities, could implement.
The plan includes 63 separate initiatives to improve road safety, including one that gives New York authorities the power to reduce the city-wide speed limit to 40km/h as a means to curb fatalities.
Elliot and Benson said reduced speed, less drunk driving, more traffic police, and awareness of how to drive safely all helped the reduction.