We have a real interest in speed. Over a million speeding tickets were handed out to New Zealand motorists last year, equating to over $80 million worth of fines. That can be looked at two ways. It can be seen as too many people not complying with basic speed limits, or it could be seen as over-enthusiastic enforcement.

Neither view is entirely accurate. Most drivers comply with speed limits, most enforcement targets high-risk drivers and, if everyone travels a little over the limit, the number of crashes will increase over the entire driving population and injures from these crashes will be more serious.

But what other views on speed do AA Members hold? To better understand that, we have run a research programme over four years, collecting over 38,000 responses from around 36,000 Members. While this is just a fraction of the AA’s 1.4 million Members, the magic of random sampling and statistics means that the results are extremely accurate and reliable.

The first point is that AA Members are not speed demons. When we’ve asked Members how fast they would drive on excellent median-separated motorways with no speed limit, the average nominated speed was around 115km/h. That is a lot slower than the 156km/h average on German Autobahns. Members also feel their cars, many with speedometers graduated from zero to 240km/h, would cruise faster than they are prepared to drive them.

Using repeated surveys, we have noticed some important speed attitude trends over the past two years. For a start, the enthusiasm for 110km/h limits on motorways shot up to 72% after the idea was debated in the media. Conversely, discussion of potentially lowering speed limits strengthened opposition to lower speed limits. Opposition to 90km/h limits increased to 76% from 65% two years ago; opposition to 40km/h limits has climbed from 60% to 68% in the same period.

To avoid contradicting the speed limit, the road code is silent on the best speed to overtake. Over 60% of Members reported exceeding 110km/h in the past six months as part of an overtaking maneuver. On average Members set about 115km/h as an upper limit for overtaking. They also strongly believe Police should allow a 10km/h tolerance on passing lanes and multi-lane motorways.

To better understand speed selection, we showed respondents images of roads and asked them to estimate the speed they would drive them. We found that roads that required more attention to steering got lower nominated speeds than wide, straight roads – an effect already explored in on-road studies. This is why many slower drivers speed up at passing lanes. Interestingly, Members were willing to concede lower speed limits (averaging 70-80km/h) on winding or narrow country roads, especially if cyclists or pedestrians were present.

Ministry of Transport surveys have found half the cars in 50km/h areas exceed the limit. Part of the reason for this is to do with the different type of urban driving environments. Members nominated 60km/h as an appropriate limit for wide, straight roads but could accept 40km/h for narrow roads or roads around schools when children were travelling. In short: give people a clear reason to slow down and they will.

Speed limits themselves are not a clear reason. Over two-thirds recalled driving in the past six months when they were not sure what the limit was. A similar number recalled ignoring 30km/h temporary speed limits on abandoned road works; those unnecessary limits were scored as an annoyance greater than getting a parking ticket.

One thing that became clear from our research is that male and female attitudes to speed and risk are very different. In general, women are more risk averse and tend to support more speed restrictions than men. However, on some issues, such as a 10km/h motorway tolerance, there is no difference between the sexes’ attitudes.

When it comes to speed cameras there is significant support for the technology and even more (80%) support for signs warning drivers of where fixed speed cameras are. There are mixed views on whether drivers should be given demerit points as well as fines for speed camera infringements, although if the tolerance was 20km/h almost two-thirds would be supportive.

In general, AA Members support Police speed enforcement, including the reduction of tolerances during the holidays. However, the recent summer's safer speed campaign with mention of a zero tolerance resulted in a notable increase in the number of Members who believed revenue rather than safety concerns was the motivation behind it (from 33% up to 38%).

After swimming in oceans of data we concluded that AA Members are perfectly reasonable people trying to drive safety and sensibly, with clear expectations informed by years of driving experience. But many are unprepared for emergencies. A third don’t feel confident they know how to use ABS brakes, half are unsure what to do if they start aquaplaning and two-thirds don’t know how to recover from fishtailing when towing a trailer. And while Members can spot very risky roads and very safe ones, they have a lot more difficulty distinguishing borderline risky roads, and don’t change their nominated speed options in response. All of this suggests that many Members are oblivious to the risks they actually run.

The fact that not all roads are as safe as others is clearly something that needs to be better understood. A road with a ditch, trees or power poles near its edge is much higher risk than a divided motorway but may have the same speed limit. Motorists should, of course, slow down and increase their following distances on roads that are less safe. But even the suggestion that because speed makes crashes worse we ought to slow down does not resonate, because most AA Members have never experienced a crash and don’t intend to have one. 

What this research shows is that where there is a genuine need to reduce speeds, changing speed limits will be far more effective if we also make change to the perceived driving environment – and that is the subject of an ongoing research collaboration between the AA, NZ Transport Agency (NZTA), and Waikato University.

Reported by Peter King for our AA Directions Summer 2023 issue

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