For a long time in New Zealand there were two speed limits: 50km/h in urban areas and 100km/h on the open road.

That hasn’t been the case for some time now, with limits of 10, 20, 30, 40, 60, 70, 80, 90 and 110km/h all existing on different roads. Yet the default of 50km/h and 100km/h has remained quite ingrained in many Kiwi minds. A new approach to speed limits is starting to challenge that; if drivers haven’t seen it happening already, it’s likely they’ll soon see proposals for lower limits on roads they travel on.

Why now? The Government’s Speed Management Guide is the document at the heart of the changes. It is designed to improve safety by ensuring speed limits match the environment and characteristics of a road. When the guide was introduced in 2016, the plan was to review five percent of roads over a ten year period.

Against a backdrop of increasing road deaths and injuries since 2013, the Government accelerated the Speed Management Guide timeframe to cover ten percent of the network in three years.

Recently, there have been new speed limit proposals using the Speed Management Guide in Auckland, Hamilton, Rotorua, Taupō, Napier, Hastings, Horowhenua, Kāpiti and Queenstown. The bulk of the proposed changes have been to lower limits to 30km/h or 40km/h in certain urban and residential areas or to lower some rural roads’ speed limits to 80km/h or 60km/h.

There have also been some reductions on highways such as SH1 between Blenheim and Christchurch and the Saddle Hill Road in Manawatū, where sections that were 100km/h have become 80km/h or 60km/h. By the time the entire ten percent of high-risk roads targeted by the Speed Management Guide have gone through the process, the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) estimates at least 200 fewer serious injuries and deaths from crashes will occur each year.

“We know speed makes the biggest difference to whether or not someone walks away from a crash, but a speed limit reduction makes very little difference to overall travel times,” Associate Minister of Transport Julie Anne Genter says.

“The purpose of the Speed Management Guide is to have central Government working in conjunction with local councils, who know their roads best, to make sure that we set safe and appropriate speed limits, particularly on those low-volume, narrow roads that are unlikely to have the sort of engineering improvements that we’ll be putting into the high volume roads.

“The previous Government was going to do this over ten years. We came in and said, well, the work’s already done, it’s out there and we have a real crisis on our roads. We know which roads are in the most dangerous top ten percent; we may as well do it in three years, or aim to do it in three years.”

Genter believes that, aside from a vocal minority, many people will welcome lower speeds and the changes will deliver a lot of benefits with little downside.

“I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that there’s a lot of public resistance to appropriate speeds. I think there’s a very strong public desire to see a significant reduction in deaths and serious injuries on our roads. We have a lot of people visiting New Zealand who aren’t used to driving on the types of rural roads we have here and I think they would be quite happy to drive at a slightly slower speed because it’s more relaxing; you don’t feel like you’re risking your life. I think those people who feel really comfortable with high speeds might be a bit more into risk-taking or they might have bigger, modern cars that might not notice the speed as much.”

Safe and appropriate

A crucial part of the Speed Management Guide work has been the creation of an online mapping tool that crunches a big range of data for roads across the country to calculate recommended ‘safe and appropriate’ speed limits. The natural question would be how many roads currently have a speed limit different to what the mapping tool calculates as safe and appropriate, but Nic Johansson, who is part of the NZTA team working to improve safety through speed management, says the answer is not straightforward.

He says that while the mapping tool indicates that about 80% of New Zealand roads don’t currently match the calculated ‘safe and appropriate’ limit, the tool is based on desktop data which needs to be checked and verified by local authorities in the real world. Just because the mapping tool gives a recommended ‘safe and appropriate’ speed doesn’t mean the authorities should immediately go out and change the limit. Too fast INP

Johansson says it’s vital that authorities engage in genuine consultation with communities to understand how a road is being used and what people perceive its risks to be. This could show that options other than a lower speed limit are the way to go.  

“If we go through a decision-making process without listening to the community, it could be that we put something in place that's not understood by the road user. And if they don't understand it, why would they necessarily comply with it? It is obviously really important that you don't put an 80km/h sign up and people keep driving at 100km/h anyway.”   

Engineering up?

The other point emphasised by Minister Genter and Johansson is that the Speed Management Guide approach is not solely about reducing limits. It can also lead to recommendations for engineering improvements to make a road safer at higher speeds. Through its Safe Network Programme, the Government is investing $1.4 billion into upgrading some of the country’s highest risk roads and intersections and Johansson says the NZTA is working hard on engineering improvements to some sections of road so current speed limits can be safely maintained.

However, the bulk of proposals under the Speed Management Guide to date have been centred on reducing limits and in some cases, even though a road may have had engineering improvements, its limit still ended up lower than it used to be. The ten percent of New Zealand’s roads targeted by the Speed Management Guide over three years equates to around 9000km of road. Funding for upgrading roads is already stretched thin, so people should expect many of the roads that are reviewed will get lower limits. Some local authorities have also proposed changes to more than the 10% of roads initially identified in their area.

At the time of writing there had been few reviews of State Highways using the Speed Management Guide but NZTA was due to make announcements about a number of high-risk highways in mid- to late June. This may be where people notice the biggest difference, as the roads with the most potential to reduce severe crashes naturally tend to be the routes carrying high vehicle numbers.

Local experiences Auckland and Queenstown local authorities have undertaken reviews under the Speed Management Guide, with both still working through the consultation process at the time of writing. Their approaches have been quite different. Auckland identified ten percent of its roading network suitable for speed limit reductions, proposing 30km/h limits in dense urban areas and making some rural roads 80km/h or 60km/h.

Queenstown’s proposal also targeted some high-risk rural roads to be reduced to 80km/h or 60km/h limits, but went for a broader approach of suggesting 40km/h for nearly all urban roads. Auckland’s proposal, in particular, has had a lot of publicity and public debate. It received more than 11,000 submissions to Auckland Transport – one of the biggest responses it has had to any public consultation, ever.

Final decisions were yet to be made by the local authorities when AA Directions went to print, but both felt that, at the very least, the public consultation had been good to get their communities thinking more about road safety and the question of safe speeds.

Auckland Transport Chief Executive Shane Ellison says it remains to be seen whether their proposal goes ahead in full, in a modified form, or not at all, but the aim is to reduce the risks of people being seriously hurt or killed from crashes at higher speeds. Ellison says that 30km/h limits in city and suburban centres is not a radical concept. With traffic congestion and intersections, vehicles are not able to go faster than this much of the time anyway.

“In Auckland, Queen Street has been 30km/h since 2008, so it would be the expansion of this concept,” Ellison says. “My sense is that it’s not going to make a huge difference in the day-to-day life of an average Aucklander. The evidence tells us that they'll just see fewer articles in the news about people being killed or seriously injured on their roads.

“There are those people, particularly in rural or regional areas, whose journey times may increase slightly, but what we’re hoping is that people can think about the greater good. Is a couple of minutes an unreasonable sacrifice to make in terms of saving lives or somebody ending up in a wheelchair?”

At the other end of the country, Queenstown Lakes District Council Policy and Performance Planning Manager Polly Lambert completely refutes the claims sometimes levelled at councils that they want to lower limits to reduce the amount of spend on roads.

She says the growth in Queenstown means roads which were once in quiet rural areas are now busy, with a lot of development on them, so speed limits need to change in line with their developing communities.

“Queenstown’s district strategy is around active travel modes. It’s shifting people out of vehicles and using other forms of mobility – whether that’s walking, cycling or public transport – so there are a lot more vulnerable users on the road. “Reducing the speed is about those road users having a better chance of survival if there is an accident. That is why I'm hoping the urban boundary limit drops to 40km/h.”

What next?

Returning to the bigger national perspective, where does the Speed Management Guide approach lead, longer term? Will it mean that eventually most urban roads will have limits under 50km/h; that no open roads without median barriers will have 100km/h speed limits? While the guide says many roads will not need any changes to limits, NZTA’s Johansson states the seemingly obvious – that the long-term goal should be to have ‘safe and appropriate’ speed limits everywhere.

“What we are working on now is to apply the directive we’ve been given by the Government Policy Statement. That means to chase down the top ten percent in terms of death and serious injury reductions. In the first instance, we’re working with the Auckland, Waikato and Canterbury regions. We can’t hit everything simultaneously; we wouldn’t be able to resource it, so that's why we have priority regions. Then there’s a schedule of flow on regions and ultimately we cover the whole country, but that’s over a longer period of time.

“I think you could have above 80km/h limits (on undivided roads) but it would have to be under special circumstances. I know that argument about the South Island where you have kilometre after kilometre of straight roads, but that's also where we have a lot of trauma. So what do the statistics tell us? It’s that disparity between what people perceive as being safe and what actually is safe.”

Johansson says NZTA faces a difficult balancing act between where to lower limits and where to ‘engineer up,’ as well as the challenge that although improving road safety is a major issue for many communities, not everyone agrees with reducing limits.

“One thing that affected the way I go about things is when I learned that if you lower the speed by ten percent anywhere on the spectrum – so if you go from 110 to 100km/h, or 80 to 72km/h – you double your chances of walking away from a crash.”

The key message he would like to share is that speed is not the only thing involved in road safety; driver behaviour, road quality and vehicles types are all factors too. But speed is the area where authorities can make the biggest difference in the shortest time. 

The psychology of speed

It’s simple in theory. Authorities put a speed limit sign up on a road and people obey it.

However, when people are driving they are mentally focussing on multiple things and research has shown they often miss a speed sign. When surveyed, about 60% of AA Members said they had recently been on a road where they weren’t sure of the speed limit.

That’s no surprise to Waikato University’s Professor Sam Charlton, an expert in the psychological aspects of transport. He says there is a big list of factors that influence how fast or slow people go, beyond what the limit is.  

“Different people choose speeds for different reasons; they choose different speeds at different points – not only in their driving career but also for their trip purpose,” Professor Charlton says.

Obvious examples would be that someone may drive at a different speed if they are running late or need to make an appointment compared to if they have no time pressures, but Professor Charlton says social expectations and how people see themselves also influences people’s choice of speed.

For example, young people in particular may go faster when they are driving with their friends in the car than they would if they were on their own or had their parents as passengers. Another surprising element is the role that habit plays in the speeds people travel, Professor Charlton says.

“There’s interesting research which shows that even people who have had a serious car crash have gone back to their pre-crash ways of driving within a year of the accident.

“We might choose a given speed based on social expectations, speed limits, or the expectation that we’ll get a traffic ticket for our regular route to work or school. Once we do that over and over we tend not to think about that choice of speed.

“We pick the same speed because it’s usual and comfortable and, in fact, it would take a lot to get people to change to a different speed. We would have to put up road works or make the road look really, really different or change their place of employment or school in order to get them to pick a different speed. Those habits are really strongly engrained and difficult to break.

“People will develop personal preferences with regard to speed. There are some drivers who prefer driving about 10% faster than they think the speed limit is and then there’s another group who prefer to drive about 10% slower. In our research, we’ve called these groups fast movers and slow movers and it’s really difficult to get them to budge.”

Professor Charlton says the people who habitually go above the limit tend to feel like they are always in a hurry and that the limit is lower than the speed they can safely drive at, while those that like to travel below the limit see themselves as driving defensively because of all the reckless drivers out there.

“We’ve found there’s a slight correlation with age – with younger drivers being fast movers and older drivers being slow movers – but it’s not a strong correlation. You find just as many lead footed oldsters and cautious youngsters.”

He also says the motivations for driving fast vary. Some people drive fast because they like the feeling they get from speed, others want to get the driving over with so they can get on to other things. People also will have different thresholds for what speed reduction feels acceptable to them.

“If someone is going 2 or 3 km/h slower than you, chances are you’ll put up with it. If it’s 5 or 7km/h you’ll start to get unhappy and look for places to overtake. What that threshold is, and whether that varies for different people or on different types of roads, is interesting. I think we all carry a threshold or tolerance for where we’re willing to sit back and relax or whether we’re going to take action.”

Professor Charlton is a supporter of the new Speed Management Guide approach but also thinks it’s critical to consider ways of modifying people's usual driving habits, to get them to go slower than the speed they're used to while driving on familiar roads.

“We need to add something to our roads to clearly explain the reason for the change in speed limit. We could do that explicitly through things like road markings and signs, or implicitly by making roads with a 80km/h limit look and feel the same, no matter where you are, with specific road markings and lane widths so it just feels right to drive at a certain speed.”

Key facts

The Speed Management Guide is targeting ten percent of roads over three years – about 9000km in total.

It’s predicted to prevent more than 200 serious injuries and deaths a year, once completed.

Under the guide, about 80% of NZ roads currently have limits above their calculated ‘safe and appropriate’ speed.

Reported by Dylan Thomsen for our AA Directions Summer 2019 issue

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