Why drivers will thank you for 30km/h limits

Ambiguity in rules lead to conflict — a clearer hierarchy of streets will be better for drivers

Current road rules and speed limits in Australia make it hard to understand where drivers should go slowly and share the street and where drivers should go fast to not hold up the traffic. This results in some drivers outright rejecting the idea that they should share the road with people on bikes or people walking.

There have been quite a few deaths and near-miss situations on Australian roads lately that involved people driving cars and people riding a bike.

We have a problem, too many drivers believe cars own the road and vulnerable road users have to watch out for themselves and should not feel entitled using “the road that belongs to cars”. There is a tendency by some to outright reject driver’s responsibility to watch out for any other road users except for other motor vehicles. This can be observed by driving behaviour but also in the comments on social media where a large number of drivers blame the victim.

I grew up in Germany, which is a car-loving nation, where the car industry is influential.

However, I felt much safer there when I walked or cycled. Car drivers did not feel that they “owned” neighbourhood streets. They were watching out for kids and people riding bikes.

I believe this has less to do with people’s general attitudes than with a sensible road hierarchy and according speed limits put in place by road authorities decades ago.

We should consider adopting something similar here as it leads to less road rage and makes it easier for drivers to know what is expected of them in different locations:

Sharing the street in neighbourhoods

Cone of Vision at different speeds. Credit: Claudio Olivares Medina

Separation on arterial roads

Exclusive Use for fast vehicles on “fast” roads

Sharing neighbourhoods makes sense

Given drivers only spend a small percentage of their journey on these streets, the impact on their travel time is minimal. However, these are streets where other road users spend most of their time so it makes sense that cars should watch out for people in these areas.

The Pareto principle states that for many outcomes roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes.

We can lower speeds in 80% of residential streets (neighbourhoods) without hardly impacting travel time as travel time is to a large degree determined by the speed we drive on arterial roads and motorways.

Driving too slowly:

In Germany you are not allowed to drive too slowly; for example driving 50km/h on a distributor with 100km/h speed limit could result in a fine. I was taught to aim to drive a speed equivalent to the speed limit, not faster but also not much less. In NSW we also have similar rules about driving too slowly.

When I moved to Australia, I was confused how fast I should drive in my neighbourhood.

My Australian neighbourhood is built for driving slowly, we have narrow roads and chicanes and some streets with no footpaths meaning drivers have to share the street with people walking. The speed limit is 50km/h, some drivers go slower, some don’t.

It feels wrong to drive 50km/h. There are some evidence-backed reasons why I now drive 30km/h through neighbourhoods:

According to the NSW Centre of Road Safety:

  • In a crash between a car and a pedestrian, there is a less than 10 per cent risk that a pedestrian will be killed at 30 km/h, 40 per cent risk at 40 km/h, and a 90 per cent risk at 50 km/h.

If someone was suddenly crossing the road 13m in front of me driving at 30km/h and 1s reaction time I will come to stop just in time after 13m. If I drove 50km/h with the same reaction time I will hit that person with an impact speed of 50km/h.

Sometimes I drive faster than 30km/h when there is another car behind me as I feel bad to slow other people down, even though I know the difference to their journey time is only seconds.

Our 30km/h Campaign

I think an immediate action for policy makers is to recommend drivers to drive 30km/h in neighbourhood streets (I would suggest all residential streets without a centreline as a guideline) and then work out a plan to change the default speed limit to 30km/h. This plan should include to provide bike lanes, crossings and footpaths on main roads where higher speed limits are desired. Data can help to work out which streets should be shared and which streets should be faster and have separation.

Councils in NSW are looking to spend money on separated cycle lanes through neighbourhoods but instead 30km/h limits should be considered as a strategy to create a network through all neighbourhood streets with many benefits, not just for cyclists. In Germany cycle lanes and crossings in many 30km/h areas where removed as experience showed mixed traffic is safer for people riding a bike in a low traffic, low speed environment.

According to Austroads lower speed limits are the most effective measure to improve pedestrian safety.

The NSW minister for Planning and Public spaces recently presented 30km/h limit for non arterial roads a price for the Best Low Cost Idea at the NSW Public Space Ideas competition.

Above: My mum on her bike in the German neighbourhood I grew up

A hierarchy as outlined above will also be good for drivers. I am convinced that no Australian driver has the desire to kill people walking or cycling. But our current road rules and speed limits make it hard to understand where drivers should go slowly and share and where drivers should go fast to not hold up the traffic.

Clear guidelines along with a good education campaign are urgently needed. One good outcome from this pandemic is the increasing number of people who choose to walk and cycle to their destination. But without better rules for all road users we will see many more unnecessary deaths on our roads.

This opinion piece is written by Lena Huda, founder of 30please.org