Setting Limits

Written By: The Lowdown - Sep• 30•00

Speed limits on our roads have, in recent months, become an annoying factor which we have to contend with in our daily travels. Everywhere one travels in Zambia, speed-measuring equipment is in evidence and seems to pop up at the most unlikely places. The one that seems to cause the most annoyance is near Maplehurst Farm, south of Kabwe, on the Great North Road (Yes, there is a small sign there reducing the maximum speed to 60 kph). Many motorists have asked why the speed limit has been reduced at this spot, which is on the main trunk road and in the middle of what appears to be nowhere. However, this reduction is fully justified as many fatal accidents have happened on this stretch of road. In recent years, engineering of roads has been cited as a factor which affects road safety, and the spot outside Maplehurst Farm seems to be a good example of an engineering fault.

So what really, apart from design faults, is the reason for speed limits? The answer given is always “road safety”, but is this a misconception? We think so.

In Scotland during 1977, due to the fuel crisis, the speed limit on single-carriageway roads in rural areas was reduced to 50 mph (80 kph). When this temporary limit was increased to 60 mph (100 kph), there was no recorded increase in the occurrence of accidents nation-wide. Scottish Police believe that the current limit of 60 mph, at night, driving on unlit roads with dipped headlights, is a reasonable speed limit as it compares well with being able to stop in the distance within which the road is illuminated by your headlights. During daylight with good conditions and light traffic on long straight roads, it is absurd. Yet in Zambia, on some very good roads and with very much lighter traffic volumes, the speed limit is the same (100 kph), a law which is probably 35 years out of date.

Even worse are our dual carriageways and the particular one in question is the Great North Road, south of Lusaka. The speed limit on the first section of the road is 50 kph – probably a hangover from the days when this section of the road was a single carriageway and nobody has thought to upgrade it. Yet, the speed limit on the dual carriageway section of Independence Avenue is 65 kph! In developed countries the speed limit on such roads, in built-up areas, is 100 kph!

The choice of the speed at which you travel is made subconsciously. If you see children possibly about to step into the road ahead, you do not look at your speedometer – you look at the children! Use of such speeds are determined by temporary conditions – that same shopping street will be deserted at 5 in the morning, and there will be no children outside the school at 9 am. To suggest that a blanket speed limit in urban areas improves road safety is patently absurd. Accidents are caused, not by speed, but by inattention. Forcing drivers to travel at a lethargic speed will cause them to become so bored that attention will lapse, and accidents will increase as a result. An unjustifiable limit only serves to bring speed limits into total disrepute and the increasing enforcement of unreasonable limits will alienate law-abiding drivers, and further diminish public confidence in the police. But, set the limit at a reasonable level, and the vast majority of drivers will comply, as there is no correlation between speed enforcement and traffic safety improvement. Fatality rates on the German Autobahn, which has minimal speed enforcement, are virtually identical to the US Interstate system, on which millions of speeding tickets are issued.

What factors need to be taken into account when setting speed limits? The size of the road and whether it is in a rural or urban area is the first factor. Other factors include traffic volumes, pedestrian traffic and design of the road. It should be based on scientifically established speed management practices, but recognition must be given to the fact that most modern cars are perfectly capable of travelling safely, in good conditions, at much higher speeds that our Law provides for.

Many of us lead busy lives and time is very precious. Lower speed limits effectively prevent you from travelling as often, or as far as you would with a reasonable speed limit. A general reduction in speed limits represents nothing less than the theft of personal time, and consequently a restriction on personal freedom.

Claims that speed limits are set at a certain level because of road safety are a total lie. The real cause of most accidents – bad driving – has, up until now, been totally ignored. However, this has now been recognised by the National Road Safety Council who, in co-operation with the World Bank, will shortly be launching the Global Road Safety Partnership initiative in Zambia.

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