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13 May 2018

Why the road safety message is past its use-by date

By Richard Blackburn -

POLICE are understandably keen to crack down on speeding — but in their zeal, they are not being entirely honest with you.

ROAD safety authorities need to update their research about the risks of travelling 5km/h over the speed limit.

Earlier this week Victoria Police spokeswoman Sergeant Julie-Anne Newman told the Herald Sun that “when travelling in a 60km/h zone, for every 5km/h over the limit your risk of being involved in a collision doubles”.

That claim is based on research carried out in Adelaide between 1997 and 2002 — roughly 20 years ago.

The numbers and assumptions aren’t relevant today because vehicle safety technology has completely transformed in the past couple of decades.

The 2001 research, by the Department of Transport and Regional Services’ Australian Transport Safety Bureau, found that very few cars in its sample were fitted with anti-lock brakes (ABS), technology that has been standard on some cars for decades.

The study says: “In the absence of anti-lock brakes (which were rare among the vehicles in this study), braking in an emergency results in the wheels locking and the vehicle skidding, even for highly skilled drivers.”

It continues: “Skidding under emergency braking is accompanied by the loss of steering control and hence the loss of any ability to steer away from an object in the path of the vehicle.”

That observation is 100 per cent correct and 99.9 per cent out of date, since the vast majority of cars on the road now have ABS, which prevents a vehicle’s wheels locking up during heavy braking and reduces stopping times. The tech also allows you to steer around objects.

Stability control, which brakes individual wheels to bring a car back under control if it starts to slide sideways, has been mandatory on new passenger cars since 2011.

The blanket statements about stopping distances also don’t take into account any variation in the braking ability of vehicles. Common sense says a Porsche 911 will stop from 60km/h quicker than a circa-2000 courier van with worn brake pads.

A majority of new cars these days also have autonomous emergency braking, which can slam on the brakes if an impending collision is detected.

It’s not the first time outdated or skewed results have been used to back up the introduction of stricter policing. Governments still claim that speed cameras have led to a 25 per cent reduction in fatal accidents.

Those claims are based on the drop in deaths in the years following the introduction of speed cameras in Victoria in 1989. What the official figures don’t tell you is that was roughly the same time they introduced booze buses, which arguably had a bigger effect.

Perhaps the figures are there to disguise the fact that a vast majority of motorists busted for speeding in Victoria (76 per cent) were fined for travelling less than 10km/h over the speed limit.

There’s no doubt speed and reckless driving are big contributors to the road toll — but let’s keep the facts relevant.

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