Speed Kills? Who Says So?

I often see signs or posters on road sides or on TV/Internet claiming ‘Speed Kills!’…or ‘Slow Down’ …Save A Life! etc but what is the truth behind this and how does speed relate to risk or safety.

Well excessive speed is only a risk to safety of yourself or others when it either causes either party to lose control of their vehicles and or so to collide with another vehicle, object, person or animal etc. 

Speed limits are imposed on specific types of roads as a catch all, blanket policy in order to control excessive speeds and either react to an accident hotspot or to address a perceived risk to other road users or pedestrians or even to address a public order issue. In essence it becomes a public order & safety policy, but it does not mean that a specific speed limit is a safe speed limit.

In fact at many times, due to weather conditions etc, the actual speed limit is too high, therefore a reduced speed should be used. Conversely the speed limit may be too low because there is no reason, in terms of safety, why a traveling speed can’t be higher.

Speed in itself is not the issue and high speed is not the issue, but higher speeds in inappropriate places and times is the issue.

So when a driver/rider exceed the speed limit on a particular road, it does not necessarily mean there is an increased risk to safety or rather not a significant one.

E.g. If the limit on a motorway is 70mph and at a time of 11pm with a very low traffic density and in good weather conditions, then if traveling at 80 or 90mph will not significantly increase risk as there is good visibility and a good view ahead and lots of space and time to slow down and avoid a hazard.

However the same principle is not as applicable to when exceeding a speed limit in an urban area. If the speed limit is 30mph and the driver/rider is traveling at 35 -40 mph then this can have a significant increase in risk, because of all the close & hidden hazards; pedestrians, hidden junctions, property entrances, other traffic emerging and traveling in the opposite direction etc…of course the risk is very much reduced as the weather improves and the traffic density reduces and when there are less likely to be pedestrians in the vicinity, such as in the middle of the night.

So if there are so many variables involved in risk to safety, and speed may or may not have an affect, then is it possible to improve education and hazard perception and either increase the limits, or make them more consistent…or even more radically…abolish speed limits altogether and let drivers/riders themselves determine what is safe and appropriate. Is it workable to allow drivers/riders to differentiate between different variables and use varying speeds as they wish?

The major problem with this, is an issue of quality of training, quality of recurrent training, emphasis on hazard perception and uniformity in risk assessment and ultimately cost. We have to ensure that all drivers/riders at all times were constantly being monitored and trained so that they are obeying the appropriate speed mentality.

But this could not happen overnight…this would take generations to change mentalities, however if we had a long enough timeline, would accident statistics and risk avoidance improve?

If we were to abolish speed limits for a short period, then of course there would be a spike in accidents & severe injuries. However, that would be worse if it were implemented without any prior education…but only marginally so.

The points to consider are: is there the political & public will to make radical changes to the way in which we use the roads and how we perceive risk to safety & effects and speed control. Do we have the capability to educate all drivers and riders to such a high standard that their risk assessment performance will dramatically reduce accident statistics…Would this improve safety?

If we consider speed and excessive speed for a moment, then it becomes only critical when we lose control of our vehicles and either cannot avoid a collision or it forces another road user to not avoid a collision or a near miss. But this in itself does not determine whether a particular speed is safe or not…what determines a safe speed is the above but also the net result of a collision.

E.g. If a speed limit is 30mph in an urban area and 2 vehicles collide with each other head on then the combined collision speed is 60mph, which is a substantial impact. The nature of injuries will be determined by that collision speed and the amount of protection around the driver/passenger or pedestrian.

If in the same speed limit a single vehicle loses control whilst traveling at 60mph and hits a wall then the collision speed is 60mph, and the same as above.

One scenario is using excessive speed and one is not, however the same risk to the vehicle occupants/riders exists. 

However, the major difference is when the collision is with another pedestrian or road user that does not have adequate protection…e.g. a cyclist or motorcyclist. Then the full impact force of the traveling speed will be transferred to them. In this case even a small increase in speed will increase the braking distance and reduce the time to avoid a collision and will certainly increase the severity of injuries. 

Even with small increases in speed, this may have a significant affect on risk…but it may also not. It really depends on the situation and the conditions at the time.

So with this in mind, with all the ifs and buts, how difficult would it be to let road users make up their own mind what is a safe speed…well…incredibly difficult! That is why the speed limit is introduced as a way to provide some kind of order and structure. A framework to monitor and control driving/riding practices in order to improve and maintain safety standards.

Whilst we may all drive/ride along a particular road or track at a quiet time and wonder why the speed limit is so slow or may even think it should be higher…we are missing the vital point. That is, at certain times of the day that posted speed limit is appropriate and at certain weather conditions it is also. 

If we were to take a road without any posted speed limits, then most would be more engaged with the surroundings and use an appropriate speed. In time most would use reduced speeds, but there will always be the cases of those drivers who would not, those that would use excessive speed and those that would incur accidents and severe injuries. The question is…as a society as we prepared to deal with the high numbers of accidents, if only in the short term? Probably not!

Probably, the best solution is to investigate variable speed limits with greater education and more visible posted signs or electronic signs…however this again would require a huge investment…but fails on continuity.

So what is the answer? Well…that is for the future to decide and this may all be academic in a few years time.

I was asked a few months ago: “Do you think that we will ever have flying cars in everyday life”. I replied: “Yes!…but the technology would have to be robust enough to support a completely automated system so the human control is taken out of the equation. We would not be able to teach the whole global population how to fly cars without there being catastrophic accidents every day!”

The future and answer to road safety, I would imagine, is to reduce the practices a driver/rider is allowed to make and the decisions they have to or should make. This can only come in the form of restriction and automation.

Whilst I do not agree in absolute speed limit logic, I do concede there have to be limits. Those limits should be variable to a certain degree, but this has to be matched with much improved education. Those limits are a public safety policy, but unfortunately by their imposition it is reducing our decision making capability…it is reducing our ability to recognise what is a safe speed. However, sometimes, as well as protecting ourselves, we also need to be protected from others and from ourselves…and that is achieved by blanket policies, monitoring and enforcement…whether we like it or not!

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