New Zealand drivers are taking a small step to faster speed limits
New Zealand Minister of Transport Simon Bridges has announced that some roads will have a new 110 kph (68 mph) by the end of the year, instead of the usual 100 kph (62 mph) limit on country roads and motorways.
The minister said, “We’ve invested heavily in our transport system to deliver safe, reliable and world-class roads. People will soon be able to benefit with more efficient and quicker journey times. A new speed limit of 110 km/h on the Tauranga Eastern Link is to be put in place by the end of this year. The Roads of National Significance are the safest roads in New Zealand – with no deaths on these roads to date.” (The Tauranga Eastern Link is a new motorway near one of New Zealand’s fastest growing cities.)
|The Tauranga Eastern Link Motorway|
Several other motorways and expressways have also been scheduled to get the new speed limit after the Tauranga motorway. So, how much difference will the new limit make to roads safety? Probably not a lot, if the experience of other countries is anything to go by.
For many years Germany has had no speed limit on motorways and that has not unduly affected the accident rate. Although it has no motorways, the Isle of Man also has no speed limits. Australia’s remote Northern Territory also had no speed limit on one highway, but that was changed due to increased fatal accidents due to thrill-seekers, and collisions with animals. Meanwhile, Bulgaria, Poland and the United Arab Emirates each have a 140 kph speed limit on selected highways. Thirty-eight countries have a maximum posted speed limit of 130 kph, 66 countries have a maximum of 120 kph, while 36 countries have a limit of 110 kph. Just 54 countries now have a speed limit of 100 kph or less and many of those are underdeveloped with poor quality roading and vehicles, or difficult terrain. For example, Papua New Guinea and the Nunavut Territory of Canada have a limit of just 70 kph. The modern world is travelling much faster than in earlier times.
New Zealand highways have been improved greatly in recent decades while the accident rate has declined. The time is right to raise the limit on selected roads, or Highways of National Significance as some roads are now called. These are divided roads that have at least two lanes in each direction, a good surface, wide shoulders, gentle curves, crash barriers and limited access. They are equal to the best anywhere.
After the change in New Zealand the country will still be among the slower paced nations. Most New Zealanders are ready to move up a gear and will welcome the change.
Of interest to many commercial drivers is that no mention has been made of also raising the speed limit for heavy vehicles. At present, New Zealand has a 90 kph limit on all heavy vehicles, and vehicles towing trailers, including cars towing trailers and caravans. But, after allowing for a 5 kph tolerance for trucks and buses and a 10 kph tolerance for cars, that gives an effective speed differential of not 10 but 15 kph (a 25 kph differential with the new limit). This leads to traffic flow conflict. Many car drivers want the heavies to travel slower so cars can pass more easily. But most heavy vehicle drivers claim that the speed differential is causing accidents due to reckless overtaking by car drivers. Most truck and bus drivers say they would feel safer with a uniform speed limit for all classes of vehicle. A uniform speed limit with uniform enforcement would remove most of the need for overtaking.
Before the merger of the Ministry of Transport highway patrols with the Police Department about 20 years ago, the tolerance policy was uniform with all classes of vehicles effectively limited to 110 kph, with a 10 kph tolerance for cars and a 20 kph tolerance for heavy vehicles. Under that regime, truck and bus drivers felt safer. But about 15 years ago a new policy was adopted for heavy vehicles with the tolerance set at 5 kph. That created an effective speed differential of 15 kph. The traffic flow conflict immediately increased and so did the number of car versus heavy vehicle fatal accidents. The policy change has been a failure.
As a voting bloc, car drivers are the majority and they can demand from government what heavy vehicle drivers cannot, even though many car drivers believe the opposite to be the case. A typical car driver opinion cropped up on Facebook this morning from one Bill Shugg of Wellington in response to a comment similar to the above: “BS it is the flow you call that is causing the problem trucks don’t like being passed and build up huge convoys behind them. The different speed allows better cornering vehicles to pass you road hogs so you don’t hold us up on hills both up and down. FFS JUST PULL LEFT. Oh and slow down in the wet so people can see. Better idea put freight on rails where it’s safer.” Thanks, Bill Shugg. I believe President Trump has a vacancy for a man of your talents to write speeches and advise on policy. You should apply.
Different speed limits for different classes of vehicles (split limits or SSLs) apply in many countries apart from New Zealand. But the wisdom of them is regularly questioned by most commercial drivers who find themselves at the coal-face for long hours every day and frequently are faced with life and death situations, on dual carriageways as much as minor roads. The claim by some that flow conflict will not exist on dual carriageways is mythical. Passing and lane changing by reckless car drivers is a constant threat to truck and bus drivers, and speed differential plays a major part.
Australia has uniform speed limits for all classes of vehicles except in the Northern Territory and a limited number of other highways where there is a 10 kph differential. The Australian fatal accident rate is slightly less than New Zealand where speed differentials are greater and cover all rural areas.
Some critics of uniform speed limits site Europe to support their cause. They say it works well there and the accident rate is low. But most European countries do not permit trucks on their roads during weekends and public holidays – the time when car drivers are at their most reckless. Sometimes I think the wrong people may have been banned.
Now let’s compare countries and their accident rates and how SSLs have their effect on safety. The world average annual road deaths per 100,000 inhabitants is 17.4, but that is not a reliable base to research from because of the widely varying rates of vehicle ownership throughout the world. A much more reliable statistic is the number of fatalities per billion kilometres, but many countries don’t report those stats. That leaves a third option, fatalities per 100,000 vehicles, as the best way to research road safety statistics. The African continent is by far the most unsafe place to be on a road with a death seven times higher than the rest of the world. If we put Africa aside we get 72 fatalities per 100,000 vehicles per year for the rest of the world.
From my research, the most surprising discovery is that in the United Arab Emirates, the only place where trucks, buses and cars can all legally travel at 140 kph, the death rate is only 38.2 per 100,000 vehicles. UAE roads are twice as safe as the world average, not including Africa. Another interesting discovery was that in Kosovo trucks can legally travel 10 kph faster than other vehicles. There is no international uniformity when it comes to speed limits. Politicians react to the whims of the electorate, regardless of the logic of the electorate. In Germany, the ban on trucks on weekends and public holidays must be music to the ears of truck drivers who, when they are allowed on the autobahn, are restricted to 80 kph while amateur car drivers have no speed limit. That probably goes some way to explaining why the fatality rate in Germany is only 6.8 per 100,000 vehicles; on the most reckless days the most solid objects are removed from the line of fire of the most reckless amateurs.
Of 197 countries, only 65 have split speed limits. The largest differential of 70 kph is found in India where the death rate is 130 per 100,000 vehicles, which is almost double the world rate (less Africa), and would be even higher if fewer people used public transport. In Saudi Arabia where the speed differential between light and heavy vehicles is 45 kph, the death rate is 119 per 100,000 vehicles. Russia does a little better where the death rate is 53.4 per 100,000 vehicles with a differential of 50 kph. Trying to establish a link between accident rates and split speed limits is not easy because so many other factors can come into play and often statistics are vague or not available. Europe generally has low accident rates, but the high use of public transport, excellent roads, strict enforcement and the absence of trucks at high accident times all play a part.
In the United States, 34,000 died during the last year on record, but that is only 12.9 per 100,000 vehicles and equates to 7.1 fatalities per 1 billion vehicles kilometres. I have an interest in the US accident statistics because I have driven in 47 of the 50 states as a car driver or truck driver. When I first drove there in 1985, the country had a nationwide 55 mph (88 kph) speed limit on all vehicles. In 2001 when I started driving trucks there, the individual states had gained the right to set their own speed limits and about half opted for SSLs with trucks limited to 10-25 mph slower than cars and buses. It is interesting to note that while many countries have SSLs for all heavy vehicles, the US allows buses to keep pace with cars in all states. There was much unease with the split limits when I drove trucks and the flow conflict was mostly on the freeways. In most other areas trucks and cars had the same speed limits. Gradually, the states have been changing to uniform speed limits and now only eight states still have split speed limits.
Unfortunately, there is a myth that persists with car drivers and politicians whereby they believe that heavy vehicles take longer to stop, don’t corner as well, and the drivers of heavy vehicles are irresponsible and unskilled, and therefore they should be compelled to drive slower than car drivers. The fact is that truck drivers must pass character, drug, and police checks. They must pass stringent theoretical and practical driving tests. Once qualified and employed, they sometimes clock up more miles a year than most car drivers will drive during their whole lifetime. Trucks are expensive to fix and insure, carry expensive cargoes, and drivers must be at the top of their game every minute of the day, if they want to remain in employment.
In America, trucking is a huge industry and handles 70% of all freight, using 3.5 million heavy duty trucks, typically a tractor unit hauling a 53-foot semi-trailer with an all-up weight of 80,000 lbs. If there is anywhere in the world to test the viability and safety of having trucks travelling at the same speed as cars, America is the place to make that test. America has been through the 55-mph uniform speed limit that ended in 1987, the individual state shambles and SSLs that followed, to the now dawning of the reality that trucks and cars are safer when travelling at the same speed.
The speed limits for US trucks now range from 55 mph (88 kph) to 85 mph (136 kph) in a small part of Texas. Four states allow trucks to travel at the car speed of 80 mph (128 kph), nine states have a truck speed limit of 75 mph (120 kph), and 19 states permit trucks to keep pace with cars at 70 mph (112 kph). These higher truck speed limits have not compromised safety, and meanwhile, from insurance statistics we learn that 75% of truck accidents are caused by drivers of cars.
From the point of view of most truck driver, California is a rogue state that insists in having unreasonable restrictions on trucks. The state has a 55-mph speed limit on trucks that is strictly enforced, while cars are legally limited to 70 mph but in practice can travel much faster. But in the last year for which statistics are available California had 244 truck deaths, the second highest in the nation after Texas with 543 deaths. Texas also has an SSL of 75 mph for trucks and 85 mph for cars. Florida has split speed limits on some roads and the annual truck death rate is 194.
Split speed limits impose undue stress on all drivers, and for truck drivers they make a long day on the road even longer with an increased risk of crashing due to fatigue. The National Motorists Association (representing all drivers) have joined forces with trucking organizations to fight against split speed limits on the grounds of safety. Interestingly, many large truck fleet operators want to retain the split limits. But their motivation is fuel saving rather than life saving. Insurance companies pay for crashes, but owners pay for fuel and for some that makes fuel a more important concern.
One owner-operator truck driver, Steve Barnes, from Cascade Locks, Oregon, has been waging a war on split limits for many years. During his research, he found that highway speed limits are set using the 85th percentile principle where the limit is set where it best suits the speed of 85% of drivers. If 7.5% will be travelling slower and 7.5% faster than the limit, the 85 percentile achieves a speed that is safest for the greatest number. This also means that both groups of 7.5% are driving less safely than the 85% and they are involved in a higher proportion of accidents. However, due to ill-informed political persuasion from car drivers, trucks are excluded from the 85% in some states and are forced to drive slower and therefore more dangerously. Those states are now becoming fewer in number and more of the remaining state with SSLs are looking at changing.
Perhaps the greatest contradiction with SSLs is that they only apply at the top end of speed limits, apparently so that trucks can stop short of hazards. But surely, if that was logical, SSLs would be applied to city streets where people can step out into the traffic without warning, which they do frequently, and when they do truck drivers stop just as soon as cars, if not sooner. It makes no sense to have a lower speed limit on heavy vehicles on rural roads where the driver seated up high has the best view of the road ahead.
When the Tauranga Eastern Link gains its 110 kph speed limit there will be no valid reason for it to not apply to all vehicles.