This morning I missed a big speeding fine by pure fluke. All of the streets around my house have a 60kph speed limit, all except one. This other street has a lot of nice houses on it and somehow the street’s residents or inhabitants managed to get the speed limit down to a posted 40kph. This is not a big street. It does not pass through a school zone. It goes down a hill then back up and travels in a more or less straight line. Now I drive on this street every day on my way to and from work. It is a short walk from my house. And after more than a decade of driving on this road I can tell you that just about everyone drives at 60kph, all the time. You might encounter the odd ‘L’ plater doing 40kph, but that is pretty much it. And it’s no less safe driving 60kph there than on all the many other surrounding streets which seem exactly the same and where the speed limit actually is 60kph.
That is by way of background. Anyway, off to work this morning at 7:30am and I turn left onto this street and happen to find myself behind a car going 40kph. It wasn’t an ‘L’ plater, so I confess to getting a bit annoyed in the 500-or-so metres I actually have to travel along this street. The car behind me even honked. And then we hit the T-junction where the street ends and — wouldn’t you know it! — a cop was pulling over cars aplenty and hitting them with speeding violations. Presumably these were for going 20kph over the limit. The State of Queensland was raking in the speed fine money this morning.
On a personal level I hit the lottery. But for the grace of pulling out behind a tortoise-like driver I’d be a lot poorer and many demerit points richer. Trust me. It’s better to meet with triumph than disaster. Only later did it dawn on me that the slow-poke driver in front of me had been tipped off in advance, because once past the cops he sped back up to a normal clip. So once past the trap I immediately pulled over (for all the police officers reading this: I then got out of my car, pulled out my cell phone) and called all the friends I know who might use that street and warned them. When I got to work I took everyone in my office corridor out for morning tea, on me. Cheap at ten times the price is what I thought.
But here’s the thing. These sort of speed traps have absolutely nothing to do with saving lives or safety. They are revenue-raising gambits pure and simple.
Worse, they have the side effect of driving regular middle-class people (like me) to have less respect for the police. Let me be blunt. You can drive across all the InterState highways in the US, where the speed limits are 75 miles per hour, and the police don’t pull you over till you’re doing 10 over the limit, so 85 miles per hour. That’s a 16kph leeway. In Canada and the UK there is also a big leeway built into the speed limits. In one Ontario provincial election one of the major parties ran on a pledge to remove speed cameras, and won. Yet here in Brisbane if you take a tolled tunnel road where the speed limits are 80kph the many revenue cameras will ticket you if you go a paltry five kilometres per hour over the limit. That amounts to being a paltry, insignificant three miles per hour over. It has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with the states in this country – which, unique in the democratic federalist world, lack income-tax power, rendering them desperate to find moolah.
Oh, hang on, it’s all about lives and safety, I hear some health and safety public servant cry.
Well, no it isn’t.
First off, if you were a true absolutist about safety being pre-eminent, and you totally ruled out any trade-offs between speed and other factors, you should favour speed limits of 10kph or lower. That would end all deaths on OUR roads. Of course, the costs would be huge – for the economy, for jobs, for getting to the hospital quickly. But if you are prepared to ignore all costs and look only at benefits you can know doubt point to one or two. (And as an aside, our university top administrators in this country specialise in that sort of ‘benefit analysis’, as distinct from ‘cost-benefit analysis’, by which you forswear all consideration of the costs of your latest ‘innovative’ and costly one-size-fits-all gambit and just impose it because you perceive some distant possible benefit.) But the fact is even the health-and-safety extremists, whether they admit it or not, undertake a balancing exercise that includes admitting that, unfortunately, people will sometimes get hurt on roads but that letting everyone travel faster than during the Middle Ages is worth it.
Secondly, despite Australia having one of the world’s most draconian speed-limit regimes and making relentless use of speed cameras whose infringement notices simply cannot be contested or fought in court (we have to take their word for it), our death toll on roads looks no better than in all the countries mentioned above — countries with much higher limits and which raise much less from fines. Put differently, if it’s not about the money then why do our road toll statistics look much the same as lots of countries with higher limits and more lemient enforcement programs?
Is it because Australians are really lousy drivers? Or is it all about this being a nice little earner and, better still, it being what amounts to a regressive tax? You don’t pay if you can afford a driver, do you? And what about the costs involved in making plenty of people think the police ought to be doing something more productive with their time?
The basic point I’ve just made about speeding fines also applies to forcing people to wear bike helmets. In cost-benefit terms when it comes to non-racing bikes there is no evidence that is beneficial either. I managed to ride bikes in London and California, without a helmet, and life went on. But I digress. I’m off for a drink and to toast the Gods for my good fortune this morning.
James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, is the author of Democracy in Decline