The speed limit on any road should be appropriate to its design and condition, not the subject of a default 100km/h setting. Therefore, a good case can be made for increasing the limit on many of the country's motorways to 110km/h. And so, too, and even more strongly, can a case be made for lowering it on many of our two-lane rural roads. The latter are, after all, the scene of a high proportion of the fatal and serious crashes in New Zealand every year.
Such was not the case last weekend when 10 people died on the roads. But that did not diminish the good sense in the call by road policing chief Assistant Commissioner Dave Cliff for some rural roads to have lower speed limits. He was reacting not to one bad weekend but to a problem that has been apparent for years and has not been tackled effectively.
As Mr Cliff suggests, many country roads, especially those with winding stretches, are simply not designed to be travelled at 100km/h. Many drivers do not have the skills or the required concentration to traverse them with a high degree of safety. Best international practice, said Mr Cliff, would dictate that the limit should be 70 to80km/h. At that speed, the chances of a crash being survivable would be much increased.
Mr Cliff's suggestion was not greeted with universal approval. Unhelpfully, the Prime Minister seemed to equate it with a reduced general limit. But there was never any suggestion of lower speeds on major roads. Particularly critical was the Queenstown Lakes mayor, Vanessa van Uden, who said speed limits were a blunt instrument. A safe speed on any day depended, she said, on the road conditions and the skills of the driver. Maybe so, but many drivers are not equipped to handle the likes of the gravel shoulders common on rural roads. An inflated sense of their skill or the consumption of alcohol can breed a complacency that proves fatal in unforgiving conditions.
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Rural roads' prominence in the road-toll statistics means attention has been paid to them. The emphasis has been on delineation improvements and realignment projects. This has undoubtedly helped, especially in reducing the number of crashes prompted by loss of control. But only so much of this work can be carried out and, clearly, it has not been enough to make the necessary impact on the toll exacted by rural roads.
Mr Cliff's comments should be judged in that light. Others have come to a similar conclusion. The Transport Agency announced last September that it was looking at cutting the speed limit on some rural roads. A review of this is being done by it and the Transport Ministry.
Those agencies have helped to instigate a downward trend in the number of road deaths that is as substantial as it is pleasing. Last year's toll of 297 was not good by the standard set in 2013, but should be compared with the 405 deaths a decade earlier, not to speak of the 843 in 1973. Their review, however, will surely underline the ongoing problem posed by rural roads. Lowering the speed limit on the most dangerous of these is the best response.