For more than two decades the New Zealand public has been sold the claim that "speed kills" - now new international road crash data is showing higher speed limits may actually save lives - IAN WISHART with the story

When New Zealand drivers turn on their tel-
evision sets each evening, chances are
they’ll see at least one advertisment featur-
ing a car slamming into a car/pole/wall/child. The inherent message? The same as it’s been since 1974 - "Speed Kills". Sure, the pictures may have become more graphic, but the underlying tone has always been that speed of any kind kills.

So haunting are the images that there is probably not a mother in the country who doesn’t think about it. But what if it was all a crock? What if the researchers behind the road safety campaigns had jumped to the wrong conclusions about road fatalities two decades ago, and created a very slick, very persuasive advertising message that was utterly wrong? As New Zealanders who remember the erroneous "one father in four is a child rapist" Telethon campaign of 1988 already know, neither Governments nor advertising agencies are infallible, and the old computer adage "put junk in, get junk out" applies.

So let’s get to the crunch: cold hard facts on the effect of speed on the road toll.

In the early 1970s, as a result of the 1973 oil shock, both New Zealand and the United States imposed new, lower speed limits in an effort to save fuel. In New Zealand’s case the limit dropped from 60 mph (100ks) to 50mph (80ks), while in the US it dropped to 55 mph - the so-called "double nickel".

In the ten years leading up to the drop in the New Zealand speed limit, an average of 608 New Zealanders had died on the roads each year.

In the ten years that followed the drop from 100 kph down to 80 kph, an average of 707 New Zealanders died on the roads each year: in other words, the new, lower New Zealand speed limit coincided with a 17% increase in road deaths. Starting to get the picture?

Then, in 1985, the New Zealand Government decided to raise the speed limit again, from 80kph back up to 100kph. The result?

Well, admittedly there was a big jump in road deaths that year as people got used to driving their cars faster, but it also coincided with boom times in the economy and a big increase in drink-driving offences.

However, over the next ten years, the average number of New Zealanders killed on the roads each year was 699, a slight drop when compared with the ten years under a lower speed limit.

Could it actually be that allowing cars to drive faster decreases the road toll overall? Sure, the chances of surviving a crash at a higher speed were much slimmer for those involved, but perhaps the higher speeds contributed to smoother traffic flows and less road rage.

One of the reasons that road toll statistics supplied by the old Ministry of Transport, and latterly the LTSA, have been misleading is because the LTSA does not measure "deaths per vehicle kilometre travelled", which is the only true measure of whether the road toll is really going up or down.

For example, if 1000 people die on the roads each year, during which time the nation’s cars have travelled a million kilometres, the ratio is one death per thousand kilometres. You can then compare that figure to a subsequent year when, perhaps, 1100 people were killed but (because of cheaper petrol maybe) the nation’s cars travelled 1.3 million kilometres.

The LTSA would simplistically tell the public "the road toll has increased", without realising that the "death per kilometre ratio" has dropped to 1 per 1181 kilometres. The truth in such a situation is that the road toll has dropped in real terms, by about 20 percent.

The closest New Zealand gets to any worthwhile statistics at all are the figures that measure the ratio of deaths to the number of cars on the road.

For the ten years that our maximum speed limit was only 80 kilometres per hour, an average of 3.75 New Zealanders were killed each year for every ten thousand cars on the road.

For the ten years after that, when the speed limit increased to 100 kph, the average number of deaths dropped by 12%, to just 3.27 deaths per 10,000 vehicles.

The ratio of people injured per 10,000 vehicles tells a similar story: during the low speed era, an average of 100.6 injuries. During the high speed era that followed: just 80.5. A twenty percent drop in injuries in real terms when cars were allowed to travel faster.

While New Zealand officials have yet to acknowledge the flaw in their road toll analysis for the past 25 years, and continue pouring taxpayer money into arguably misleading advertisements, United States researchers have been stunned to discover some equally shocking truths.

In both NZ and the USA, traffic authorities noticed an immediate drop in the road toll following the introduction of the lower speed limits in 1974. In New Zealand’s case, fatalities dropped by an incredible 167, while in the US road deaths on interstate highways dropped by almost 9,000.

To traffic planners the answer seemed obvious: lower speed equals fewer deaths. What they didn’t factor in, however, was the cost of petrol. Oil prices had rocketed so high that people cut travel to a minimum. Fewer cars on the road meant fewer deaths.

This may be one reason why New Zealand’s road toll has dropped over the past 12 months - a 37 percent increase in the cost of petrol - rather than the Government’s much vaunted Photo ID licence.

For 13 years the US Government maintained its 55 mph limit on the interstates until, in 1987, the President allowed individual American states to raise their speed limits to 65 mph if they chose to. Then, an interesting thing happened.


Consumers Research Magazine in the US published a story in 1997 revealing that those states that had raised their speed limits to 65 mph experienced a "3.4% to 5.1% drop in fatalities when compared to states where the speed limits did not change."

In 1995, after fierce lobbying for and against, President Clinton decided to remove federal speed limits entirely, allowing individual states to decide their own limits on all their roads.

Road safety campaigner Ralph Nader believed the move would be a tragedy for America.

"Visualise, please, what is at stake, between 6,000 and 7,000 more fatalities annually, tens of thousands of disabling injuries, US$19 billion in public health and related costs a year."

Nader probably based his figures on the almost 9,000 decrease in fatalities when speed limits were reduced, figuring the road toll position would simply reverse back to the bad old days. But this was based on a flawed analysis of why the road toll actually dropped, as we’ve already shown.

Sure enough, Ralph Nader was wrong this time. Instead of 7,000 more deaths on the road as a result of the US abolishing open road speed limits, an official report compiled by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1998 revealed an increase in road fatalities of only 350 people across the US - not statistically significant.

But the NHTSA, the US equivalent of our LTSA, had vehemently opposed the abolition of speed limits and was trying to put the worst spin on it, continuing to push the "Speed Kills" message in its publicity material.

Independent researchers see it differently.

"The latest statistics," says National Motorists Association spokesman Eric Peters, "should provide some tasty garnish for the crow sandwich now being placed in front of such doomsayers as former NHTSA chief Joan Claybrook and Clarence Ditlow, her cohort from the Centre of Auto Safety.

"Of the 36 states to set higher-than-55-mph interstate speed limits, the majority showed an improvement in traffic safety.

"In California, where interstate speed limits are [now] set at 70 mph, the fatality rate declined 4 percent between 1995 and 1996 - the best record since 1961. In Mississippi, the fatality rate dropped an impressive 21 percent after the highway limit was raised from 55 mph to 70 mph."

In Montana, where speed limits were abolished entirely, the number of road deaths dropped by five percent.

The reason? According to Peters, motorists will determine their own sensible speed limits according to conditions.

"Fifty-five miles per hour, or even 65 mph for that matter, on a modern interstate highway in a modern car equipped with 4-wheel anti-lock brakes, overdrive and excellent modern tyres is just silly.

"So most people ignore the unrealistic speed limits and keep a keen eye out for speed traps. As time went by, most of us became very cynical and even contemptuous about modern speed enforcement.

"The 55 mph speed inaugurated an era when limits became revenue enhancers - and the highway patrol turned into highwaymen, eroding public respect for and confidence in police forces.

"Turning cops into armed tax collectors with quotas to fill and the weight of the state to enforce it has generated enormous public antipathy towards the police, a most unfortunate thing.

"At least now that 55 is history and the ‘safety’ gurus have been exposed for the frauds they are, we’re on our way toward saner traffic laws built on reason and sound engineering principles."

In New Zealand, the LTSA still brainwashes the media and the public. LTSA official Bill Frith:

"What’s happened in the States, if you look at the states that abolished speed limits, they had bad records before the abolition and bad records after, and the states that kept low speed limits had good records before and good records after," he says.

Which is not how the US road toll figures read at all.

"I would think these unsafe states were probably ignoring their speed limits anyway," continues Frith, adding that "NHTSA did a report and sounded pretty negative about it."

All of which seems to confirm that New Zealand’s road safety planners have been getting bad advice from a grumpy NHTSA.

"We’ve got the papers and looked at them and we’re quite satisfied that, as NHTSA said, it didn’t do the road toll any good," Frith concludes.

For what its worth, the 1999 figures are in for Montana which recorded its lowest ever road toll, thanks to roads with no speed limits. Ironically, thanks to a court ruling, speed limits were recently reintroduced there, and the road toll is now rising again.

In addition, official NHTSA figures show 1998 was one of the safest years on record in the states, with a 1.8 % drop in highway fatalities, despite a booming economy and cheap petrol prices that year, which led to increased vehicle usage.

"Using speed limits and speed enforcement as the cornerstone of US highway safety policy is a major mistake," says the NMA’s Chad Dornsife in what should also be a clear warning to New Zealand police. "It is time to accept the fact that increases in traffic speeds are the natural byproduct of advancing technology. People do, in fact, act in a reasonable and responsible manner without constant government intervention.

Readers can judge for themselves what kind of story the figures tell, so next time you see an expensive TV ad costing $13,000 of your tax dollars, bear it in mind. The New Zealand Government makes a fortune from speeding fines, a tax they would not be able to collect if speed limits were raised to more realistic levels.

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