ARE LOW SPEED LIMITS FOR SAFETY OR MAKING MONEY?

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SETTING highway speed limits too low doesn’t make motorists safe but unlawful. This is because most motorists will consistently violate low speed limits. When they violate, they get charged penalty fees.

In Zambia, We have highways with very low speed limits which drivers don’t respect or obey. Drivers are more scared of penalty fees for speeding than speed itself.

Before I go any further, I wish to convey my deepest thanks to all those who gave me feedback for last week’s article. The feedback was so overwhelming, especially drivers. I’ll share some of the comments in future articles. This article is a continuation of last week’s subject.

Unrealistically too low speed limits makes compliance very difficult and enforcement even more difficult. We have made complying with road safety laws and regulations more difficult than violating them.

It is easier to disobey than to obey them. It appears that when non-compliances increases, the law enforcers simply resort to increasing the penalty fees for violations. Law enforcers assume that by making violation of laws more expensive, motorists will be motivated to obey them.

Instead of focusing on making violating laws more expensive, Road Transport and Safety Agency (RTSA) should focus on making compliance easier. This can be achieved by ensuring that laws make sense to law keepers. Public consent is key compliance.

Since highway speed limits are too low, majority of drivers exceed them. A certain driver lamented to me, “Mark, do you know how difficult it is to drive my BMW car with design driving capacity of 240km/h at 60km/h on a long journey? Ba RTSA bakulanjikatafye lyonse (RTSA will just be arresting me always)!” This driver is not the only one who has developed such an attitude towards our current low speed limits.

Recently, a female driver gave me a lift from Ndola to Lusaka. This gave me an opportunity to assess the driving behaviour of female drivers on a long journey. The highest posted speed limit on the Lusaka-Ndola highway is 80km/h.

The female driver, who seemed not to pay attention to the few dotted speed limit signs, constantly exceeded the speed limit and consistently drove at an average speed of 110km/h (38 percent higher than speed limit).

When overtaking, she would exceed 120km/h. Even when it became dark, she maintained the speed of 110km/h. Her vehicle control and balancing was excellent. Even at high speed, she appeared confident behind the wheel. This experience increased my conviction that Zambia has safe drivers who can drive safely at reasonably high speed.

On a different day, we were driving on another highway with a speed limit of 80km/h. I was with a road engineer, a highly accomplished road consultant working for a major consulting firm that supervises the construction of most of the roads in Zambia.

The consultant was the one driving – and, of course, above the speed limit.

I asked him, “Are Zambian highways, which you are constructing, so unsafe that we can’t drive at 120km/h?” He respond, “Modern highways are safer and they can support driving at 120km/h and above.

He equally agreed with me that there is need to revise speed limits upward on our highways to meet the modern transportation needs.

Exceeding the speed limits on our highways is the order of the day. If they were honest enough, most drivers would confess that they frequently exceed the current maximum legal speed limit of 100km/h on highways. If you have a majority of drivers consistently exceeding the speed limit, it’s an indication that such a speed limit has become irrelevant.

What is found on our highways is that speed limit signs are not posted on our roads and, in rare cases where they are posted, they are not adequate. So motorists especially foreigners find it difficult to know the maximum permitted speed limits.

Driving on Zambian highways is freestyle. Drivers decide their own driving speed which they perceive to be reasonable and safe for the prevailing driving conditions. Drivers will drive slowly when driving within town. But immediately they leave town, they press the accelerator to a high speed comfortable to them.

Zambian speed limits are “hidden” in the Road Traffic Act and motorists are expected to memorise them. These speed limits in the Act are actually too general.

Speed limits ought to be specific to a given road segment because various sections of the same highway may require different speed limits.

Keeping the speed limit very low and unposted on the roads means that majority of drivers will violate them, knowingly and unknowingly. This way law enforcers will collect more money from drivers caught exceeding the speed limits. The more “wrong-doers” over-speed, the more money is made.

This is what has led to the rampant perceived corruption among road traffic police and RTSA because it’s cheaper to corrupt an officer than paying the full penalty fee.

So if the goal of keeping the speed limits low, general and unposted on the roads is to generate money, then they shouldn’t be revised. But if the goal of having speed limits on the roads is to promote road safety, then they should be revised. They should be made visible on the roads and specific to various road sections.

I know RTSA would object to the call to increase speed limits. They would say that the speed limits are already too high and that speed is the major cause of road accidents. They would produce accidents statistics that over 2, 000 deaths occur annually on our roads. RTSA uses this statistics to justify their road safety measures to curb “over-speeding.”

Such a high number of fatalities makes all of us sad and emotional. So when RTSA invents a solution to prevent fatalities, it attracts political will and public support. But when such a solution fails, RTSA simply invents another one.

By presenting this huge number of road fatalities, RTSA manages to persuade the government to sign all kinds of Statutory Instruments. It is extremely sad that we lose such a huge number of lives. But we shouldn’t allow this figure to make us so emotional and irrational that we simply accept everything RTSA tells us.

Let’s analyse RTSA statistics. Statistics must be accurate and precise to be useful. Accuracy must be maintained during data collection, interpretation and application. Wrong data lead to wrong interpretation and conclusions.

Firstly, let’s look at how RTSA collects data. There is no special instrument to measure the speed the vehicle was moving at before the crash. Therefore, during accident investigation, RTSA relies on the extent of vehicle damage, eye witnesses and accident survivors to establish if speed is the cause of accident.

If the vehicle damage is severe, investigators conclude that the vehicle must have been over-speeding. Eye witnesses, most of them may not even know the speed limit of that section of the road, will simply tell investigators that “I saw the vehicle moving too fast.”

Since the eye witness said “too fast,” investigators conclude that the vehicle was over-speeding. Accident survivors do not base their decision on the speedometer. Instead they base their judgement on how often the driver overtook others or how fast trees appeared to be moving or how much wind was blowing through the windows.

They assume that if the driver is overtaking others, then he is over speeding. Similarly, if trees are moving too fast or wind blowing too much, then the vehicle is moving too fast respectively. So they will tell investigators that the driver was over-speeding.

All these primary data sources are subjective and may not entirely true. My point is that some of the accidents we have attributed speed as the cause may not be true.

Secondly let’s look at how RTSA interpret accident data. RTSA will tell you that pedestrians are the majority of the people who get killed on our roads. The number of pedestrians dying on our roads looks bigger than it really is because RTSA classifies road users into three – motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.

But in reality, we have four road users – motorists, cyclists, pedestrians and passengers. Passengers who die on our roads are classified as pedestrians. If you follow four road users classification method, you will agree with me that the majority of road users who die on our roads especially highways are passengers, not pedestrians.

A single bus can kill on spot over 50 passengers like the Post Bus accident. But it’s rare that a car kills three pedestrians at a go. Since number of passengers is counted as pedestrians, it increases the error margin. RTSA must classify accident data accurately by separating pedestrians and passengers.

Lastly, let’s look at how RTSA apply accident data. It is true that most road deaths occur on highways. But the majority of people who die on highways are passengers, not pedestrians.

Most of accidents which occur within towns often simply result in car damages with minor or no injuries to drivers and passengers. However, where township road accident results in death, it is often a pedestrian being hit by a moving vehicle. In short, on highways, majority deaths involve passengers while on township roads, majority deaths involve pedestrians. This is my data analysis.

RTSA analyses and applies data differently. They will simply say a lot of lives are dying on our roads. They don’t specify which roads – whether highways or township roads. As you have seen, if we classify deaths per road type, majority deaths occur on highways. But RTSA uses ‘deaths’ as a reason to introduce harsh measures on township roads. In other words, the number of deaths, of which majority occur on highways, is the passport RTSA uses to justify their measures to control road behaviour on township roads.

Similarly, if we classify deaths per road user type, majority pedestrians die on township roads while majority passengers die on highways. But RTSA uses death of pedestrians as the reason for setting very low speed limits on highways.

They simply present the overall figure of 2, 000 deaths to attract political and public support. This formula has worked for RTSA.

I know data analysis and interpretation can be confusing. If I have lost you, just remember that RTSA uses what happens on highways to introduce control measures on township roads and vice versa.

The correct thing to do is to use what happens on highways to manage safety on highways and what happens on township roads to manage safety on township roads. Swapping the two never works.

Highways need passenger safety while township roads need pedestrian safety. But if we continue considering passengers as pedestrians, we will continue interpreting and applying the accident data wrongly. Passengers are not pedestrians.

Low speed limits may seem to favour pedestrians but not drivers and passengers. Additionally, low speed limits may favour high generation of money through penalty fees but not road safety.

A realistic speed limit is voluntarily obeyed by a reasonable majority of drivers. To increase compliance of speed limits, increase the speed limits, not increasing penalty fees for non-compliance. Give me a feedback. Let’s debate.

  • The author is the CEO of SafetyFocus, a safety company committed to providing safety training and consultancy.
  • For all your comments, kindly contact the author on cell +260 975 255770 or email: marksucceed@gmail.com
  • Mark Kunda – Safety Consultant

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