Timing is everything. Motoring writer Peter Gill was, therefore, skating on thin ice when he suggested the speed limit on some motorway stretches should be lifted to 110km/h. His call came just days after the reporting of the lowest road toll since monthly records began in 1965 and just a few months after the toll for 2011 was declared to be the lowest annual figure since 1952. Clearly, New Zealand's roads are becoming safer, thanks to the approach being pursued by the police. A particularly compelling case would have to be made for something that runs counter to the thrust of that policy.
Gill's argument does not provide that. His contention is that sections of motorway, notably newly opened stretches, such as those around Hobsonville and Kumeu, could easily sustain the extra 10km/h. That speed he describes as the "sweet spot" for many cars. Yet, in reality, this is already the default setting. The police tolerance of speeding is 10km/h over the legal limit, except over holiday weekends when traffic density means the roads are at their most dangerous and it drops to 4km/h.
Furthermore, a general acceptance of this approach has owed much to the policing of speeding being restricted largely to accident blackspots, not the "choice" motorway sections to which Gill refers.
His suggestion would, because of the police tolerance guideline, actually raise the limit to 120km/h. That is not a comfortable prospect in a country whose road safety woes are reflected in a particularly high death toll per head of population.
Gill writes of travelling at 255km/h on an autobahn "just because I wanted to celebrate the way the German police completely ignore you if the weather is clear, you're in a capable car, and you don't drive as if you've been on the toot". It is common for Germany to be celebrated by those who like to think the freedom to speed has no road safety consequences. But figures for last year show that country's death toll per 100,000 people was 4.5. That may be better than New Zealand's 6.4 but is far worse than Sweden's 2.8. The latter nation surely provides a more useful safety guide. There, a few highways do have a 110km/h limit, although a 90km/h maximum is most common. In all instances, however, transgressions are punished by hefty fines or loss of licence.
The grim fact is that too many New Zealanders have been too slow to absorb safety messages, especially those related to speeding. Legal limits have been blithely ignored, so much so that speeding is estimated to contribute to about a third of all fatal accidents. This disregard has done much to offset the benefits of better roads and safer cars. Only now, thanks in large part to the introduction of digital speed cameras, the reduced speed tolerance during holiday periods and a bigger police presence on the roads at that time, is the picture improving.
It speaks volumes for the success of this approach that there are now few complaints about police revenue-gathering and suchlike. People appreciate that this strategy is an efficient means of creating a calmer atmosphere on the roads by modifying the behaviour or removing those who continue to breach speed limits. The most recent statistics suggest this greater calm has extended beyond holiday weekends, even though the police do not have the resources to sustain a lower tolerance throughout the year.
It would be wrong to enact something that flies in the face of an approach that is obviously working. People like Gill may think they can drive safely at higher speed on our best highways. But New Zealand's statistics point to the many poor motorists who would make that a hazardous undertaking. Still bigger impressions must be made on the road toll. Pointing everything in the same direction will be an essential part of that.