A staggering 135 infants or primary school children were killed or seriously injured in Auckland traffic crashes between 2018 and 2022, along with nearly 400 people aged 65 or older.
It’s hard, but necessary, to commit these statistics to paper. The social and economic costs of each of these tragic incidents are incalculable. But they highlight the importance of Auckland Transport’s proposal to lower speed limits on 1646 roads around Auckland. Road safety research from here and overseas is unequivocal - decreased vehicle speed equals increased safety. Just ask the World Bank, which notes that people have a 90 per cent chance of surviving after being hit by a vehicle going 30km/h, but less than 50 per cent at 50km/h or higher.
We know from decades of research that higher speeds kill. They also result in more severe injuries. Road users such as pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists are especially vulnerable, and the fatality risk increases sharply when travel speed tops 30km/h.
It’s unfortunate that this important fact has been diminished in objections to Auckland Transport’s speed limit reduction proposal. Many of those against the proposal spuriously argue that lower speed limits will worsen congestion and lead to negative economic impacts for the City of Sails. While it’s true that congestion has been estimated to cost Auckland $1.3b per annum, and that congestion does generate slower journey times, it’s incorrect to claim that congestion and queuing are the result of slower speeds.
Rather, congestion happens when demand for the road network exceeds capacity. Any motorist travelling across Auckland from one choked-up part of the network to another will tell you it’s a struggle to reach or maintain any kind of speed - whether that’s on a 50km/h road, or a 30km/h road. When it comes to congestion, the impact of lower speeds is negligible.
Instead of mischievously pointing the finger at lower speeds, those who genuinely wish to address the economic impacts of congestion should advocate for equitable congestion charging and channel their efforts toward promoting alternative transportation modes and optimising urban planning to reduce long commutes.
Those concerned about economic impact should also know that road crashes impose significant intangible, financial and economic costs to society. According to the World Health Organisation, road traffic crashes cost most countries approximately 3 per cent of their gross domestic product.
In New Zealand, the Ministry of Transport estimated that the social cost of fatal and injury crashes involving motor vehicles in 2019 amounted to approximately $4.6 billion. Getting that number on a downward trajectory as fast as possible will be a boon, not a handbrake, for society and the economy.
Contrary to the critics, research shows that lower speeds can yield economic benefits. A study from Wales for example, which introduced a default urban speed limit of 30km/h, revealed that the economic savings resulting from reduced crash rates amounted to approximately $180 million.
Lower traffic speeds also contribute to safer, more livable cities. It’s no mistake that more livable cities, those with high-quality infrastructure, green spaces, and accessible and sustainable mobility, can contribute to economic success.
Along with active transportation and enhanced urban design, lower speeds are part of a positive feedback loop that can contribute to the growth and prosperity of urban areas - not just in Auckland, but in all New Zealand towns and cities.
Auckland Transport’s proposal to reduce speed limits is a great example of a Safe System, or harm minimisation, approach to road safety, which involves controlling speed in such a way that crashes don’t cause fatal or serious injury.
Based on the experience of the first 24 months of its Phase 1 speed limit reductions, their safety case is well and truly proven. Compared with control sites (those with no speed limit reduction), the places where speed limits have been reduced have seen a 39.8 per cent reduction in road traffic fatalities and an 11.8 per cent reduction in serious injuries.
With such compelling evidence supporting proposed speed limit reductions in Auckland, the boot is on the wrong foot. Rather than Auckland Transport having to justify lowering speed limits, we should be asking those opposed what right they have to put the brakes on safety interventions that are proven by international research to save lives and reduce serious injuries.
My question to those opposed is which children or grandparents are you willing to have killed or injured in road crash as a result of Auckland’s current, too-high speed limits?
The answer that any morally, right-thinking person would give, of course, is none.
- Dr Fergus Tate, technical director at engineering firm WSP, has decades of experience researching causes of road deaths and spent seven years with Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency where he was the lead safety advisor for roads and roadsides.