|London, 16 September 1997.
For immediate release.
In 1996, many of the member states of the United States raised freeway speed limits to 70mph or above, Montana in particular, abolishing a daytime speed limit. The result of 12 months of increased freeway speeds has been a 0.4% decrease in fatalities overall, with one state - Michigan - recording a 1.6% decrease. This is in agreement with the findings of researchers Lave and Elias of the University of California, who demonstrated that the previous increase from 55 mph to 65 mph in many states had resulted in 3.5% reduction in fatalities system-wide.
Why should it be that higher freeway speeds produce lower fatality rates? One of the main reasons was that under the previous regime in which heavy levels of enforcement were concentrated on freeways - the United States safest, highest quality roads - faster drivers sought out other roads subject to lower enforcement levels (which were inevitably of lower quality and therefore less safe). Permitting more realistic speeds on the safest roads makes the whole system safer.
The exact converse of this can be seen in the experience of Oxfordshire, a UK county which has uncritically and wholeheartedly absorbed and enacted the principles (and the revenue-raising potential) of the "Speed Kills" philosophy. The county's Road Safety Officer proudly proclaims that "the whole county is a speed camera area". High quality roads are being deliberately underposted and speed cameras have proliferated like a fungal infection. The result: a 31% increase in fatalities in 1996 over 1995 as drivers took to adjacent, lower enforcement routes to avoid Gatso cameras.
A further study by the US Federal Highways Administration established that drivers do not obey speed limits they perceive as unreasonable; that there were no road safety or operational benefits to be gained from underposted speed limits; and that reasonable, realistic speed limits result in improvements in both road safety and compliance. The report recommended that speed limits should be set according to the 85th to 90th percentile speeds (the speed at or below which 85% to 90% of the vehicles using a road travel under freeflow conditions). On UK motorways this speed is 85mph.
The much-touted 70% fatality decrease at camera equipped West London urban sites is an exercise in creative accounting: the Traffic Research reported in 1994 that "only at camera-equipped junction locations was there a significant reduction in fatality and serious injury accidents". When the full study is carefully examined, it is clear that non-camera equipped roads adjacent to the camera sites had suffered an increase in fatalities and serious injuries against expected levels virtually exactly matching the decrease against expected levels recorded at the camera-equipped sites
The very foundation on which the "Speed Kills" campaign is based is flawed, as revealed in a 1996 booklet by PACTS, the Parliamentary Advisory Committee for Transport Safety, which stated that "a detailed study including the part played by speed in accidents .....has not been carried out for a number of years". The DoT's presumption that excessive speed is a contributory factor in "22% to 32% of accidents" is, in fact, a presumption lacking any supportive hard evidence.