In Germany, the land of the Autobahn, cars driving 200km/h are not uncommon, with some reaching 240km/h. At this speed, the car roars and the fuel gauge plummets. Cars that change lanes loom up at an unnerving speed. The German government is considering reducing speed limits on autobahns to just 160km/h. Some Germans protest against driving so slowly. Other groups point out the benefits that include far less noise in the surrounding areas, and reduced fuel consumption, pollution and less road deaths.
Many Canberrans would say Germans are crazy to drive so fast, but then the Germans react the same way to us. In Germany, the speed limit in cities is 50km/h, even on major two-lane roads, and often even slower on local streets. To a German, driving faster than 50km/h on a local street is considered dangerous. Austroads would agree, yet this is our situation in Canberra.
We are all better than average
The vast majority of the population thinks that as a driver they are better than average. It is statistically impossible for most people to be better than average but it highlights human nature to think we are better than we are.
What the average driver can do to improve road safety is well documented by science, and research has confirmed the truth of it again and again. Cars move too fast to be around people. Safer cities mean we should drive slower.
Austroads in 2020 published a report recently confirming this. The report, Integrating Safe System with Movement and Place for Vulnerable Road Users (Austroads, 2020), is a guideline how to make our cities both safer and more liveable. The many good practices and recommendation are labelled a Safe System, in contrast to the status quo which is clearly not always that safe. Vulnerable road users are, namely, pedestrians and cyclists. People are fragile and fallible. When a car collides with a pedestrian and cyclist, the pedestrian and cyclist can be seriously injured and sometimes dies. Injuries and deaths are avoidable with better urban design. As one urban planner explained, “if you have to put up signs, you have a design problem.”
The road network
The map below shows an urban environment in Belconnen. A road network where small local roads feed connecting roads to larger main roads. In the ACT, these roads are called Local Access Streets, Minor and Major Collectors, and Arterials. In the map the yellow and green streets have a speed limit of 50km/h, the orange streets 60km/h and the blue streets 80km/h. The exception is around schools where the speed is 40km/h.
Lower speed limits
Austroads recommended speed limits within Canberra.
For many people, 30km/h may seem a bit too slow. Austroads sees it differently.
“It is increasingly accepted by road safety practitioners that, to be aligned with the Safe System philosophy for pedestrians and cyclists, 30km/h impact speeds define the upper limit of an ‘acceptable’ collision. This ‘Safe System boundary condition’ coincides with an approximate 10% chance of the struck pedestrian being killed by the collision. Put another way, this corresponds to a 90% chance of survival. For the corresponding situation with serious injury (i.e., a collision with a pedestrian producing a 10% chance of serious injury), a much lower impact speed applies.”Integrating Safe System with Movement and Place for Vulnerable Road Users (Austroads, 2020), page 14.
A driver could break but it is often not the case.
“Research carried out by Anderson et al. (1997) found that about half of all fatally injured pedestrians in their study were struck at the initial travel speed; that is the driver had not braked before impact. This means that the travel speed is commonly the impact speed. For these reasons, pedestrian and cyclist measures should, ideally, be designed and operated to secure impact speeds to not more than 30km/h.”Integrating Safe System with Movement and Place for Vulnerable Road Users (Austroads, 2020), page 15.
There are huge benefits to small speed reductions on local roads. Corben, D’Elia and Healy, 2006) indicated fatal injury risk to a pedestrian reduces by:
“ 90-95% when a driver chooses to travel at 30km/h instead of 50km/h
75-80% when a driver chooses to travel at 40km/h instead of 50km/h.”Integrating Safe System with Movement and Place for Vulnerable Road Users (Austroads, 2020), page 24.
The problem the urban planners face is a political one.
“While 30km/h speed limits in local streets offer the simplest and lowest cost means of designing for Safe System risk levels for pedestrians and cyclists, the current default speed limit is 50km/h and there is little evidence of the political level allowing the profession to reduce the default urban speed limit to 40km/h.”Integrating Safe System with Movement and Place for Vulnerable Road Users (Austroads, 2020), page 24.
Lack of footpaths
We do not have footpaths in the ACT but instead community paths that can be used by pedestrians and cyclists. Many older suburbs in the ACT have streets without any community paths, so for many Canberrans the situation described in the Austroads report would sound familiar.
“Footpaths tend to be taken for granted but are too often not provided in local streets… This happens as a result of a failure to make even the most basic provision for walking in urban areas. There are a number of important consequences from these long-standing practices. First, pedestrians are forced to walk on roadways when the space normally provided for footpaths is blocked by overgrown trees and other vegetation, parked vehicles or otherwise unsuited for walking because of wet weather and/or poor surfaces. This results in pedestrians, often children on foot and/or parents with young children, prams and strollers, negotiating traffic while walking on the road alongside approaching traffic travelling at 50km/h or higher. On occasions, pedestrians will have their backs turned and have minimal lateral clearances. Such conditions are far outside the boundaries for low-risk walking and often remain in place for decades due to insufficient funding to rectify the situation. Mobility-impaired people and older and younger pedestrians using local streets become even more vulnerable in these circumstances.
A secondary effect of a lack of basic walking conditions is that people are more inclined to driver, particularly when transporting children to and from school, which adds to the problems of car dependence, human inactivity, congestion around schools and the resultant risks that children face when interacting with traffic.”Integrating Safe System with Movement and Place for Vulnerable Road Users (Austroads, 2020), page 109.
Alternative to reducing speed limits
It is difficult to make cities a nice place to live that is safe for people, and reconcile that with the transport systems that we all require. Urban planners describe this in a framework called Movement and Place. Tension and compromise in urban planning is nothing new.
The conflict between transport and vulnerable road users is recognised as a “dilemma and major challenge.” The report recommends that “travel speeds of 30km/h or lower are needed where vehicles are able to interact with pedestrians and cyclists” but if this is not possible then “effective physical separation is required to meet Safe System principles.”
The alternative to reduced speed limits is to move pedestrians and cyclists from roads to protected and separated community paths. Unfortunately, protected and separated community paths often do not exist in our older suburbs and are expensive to build. Currently funding for road infrastructure is from crash histories. This mindset makes it difficult to justify the cost of separated community paths.
“A major shift in methods of prioritisation will be needed, as current economic criteria will rarely lead to such funding being provided… Alternatively, the status quo will prevail, and with it a steadily growing problem of road trauma involving cyclists and pedestrians.
Where lower speed limits are preferred over physical separation, significant leadership and community/political engagement will be needed to address the current (sometimes) vocal resistance in communities and among some stakeholders. Considerable progress has been made across Australasia with the implementation of 40km/h speed limits where (higher-risk) walking and cycling predominate. In general, the economic impacts feared by early opponents have not eventuated and opposition has been short-lived.”Integrating Safe System with Movement and Place for Vulnerable Road Users (Austroads, 2020), page 87.
The last point is good news. People often resist change but are also quick to accept it when they find that the change is for the better. The ACT Government does not have a great deal of money to fund cycle paths but could easily make Canberra a better and safer place to live with little cost by introducing 30km/h speed limits on local roads. Should that not be immediately acceptable to the community, a step reduction to 40km/h on our local streets would be a big improvement.