The truth about the 120km/h speed limit story

By Wade O'Leary on 05 September 2015
Keys and 120 kilometres per hour sign
The recent brouhaha about increasing speed limits on the Pacific and Hume Highways has drawn a huge reaction from NRMA Members and the general public – but some of the responses are based on opinions and assertions that need to be addressed.

The main things to understand are that the State Government is not calling for the maximum speed limit to be increased to 120km/h and the NRMA is not unilaterally opposed to the idea.

The fact is that both parties hold the same position: namely, that it is worth considering the arguments for and against such a change but only after gathering all the relevant facts.

"I haven't indicated I want to increase the speed but I'm looking at getting some facts so there can be a proper community debate," Roads Minister Duncan Gay told the ABC last week.

"People have asked for the debate and I was gathering the information for that debate."

NRMA President Kyle Loades also emphasised the need to look at the detail.

“Every road has to be judged on the same merit, including crossroads and intersections,” he was quoted by the Newcastle Herald as saying.

“We will wait and see what the RMS says, if it says the road design is safe to have a 120km/h limit then we will consider it.”

As indicated by Mr Loades’s remarks, Mr Gay pointed to the need for grade-separated intersections and crossroads: expensive and extensive roadworks to remove the dangers posed by slower vehicles turning into or merging from side roads.

"We're OK at 110km/h but when you've got crossroads coming in on most of those roads ... that's a problem," Mr Gay told the Sydney Morning Herald.

But further analysis of the situation suggests this would just be the beginning of the quest for a 120km/h speed limit.

NRMA’s road safety experts say there are a range of design issues that would also need to be considered such as the road alignment, the width of traffic and breakdown lanes, the need for a safe roadside free of hazards like trees or poles and the extent of crash barriers to prevent collisions.

These improvements would all help a road achieve a five-star safety rating, which would support any increase in the speed limit.

However, not a single kilometre of highway or freeway in NSW or the ACT meets this standard, according to the Australian Roads Assessment Program (AusRAP).

And even if AusRAP’s $4.7 billion plan released in 2013 for upgrading the nation’s road network was fully implemented, then by their own analysis only the stretch of the Hume Highway between Sydney and Campbelltown would be consistently safe enough to raise the speed limit.

Other thoroughfares such as the Pacific Highway would still require even more work to provide a consistent speed limit.

Then there is the question of vehicle safety standards: new cars are well equipped with active and passive technologies but they are sharing the road with a national fleet that has an average age above 10 years for the first time in a decade and also many trucks that have none of these safety features.

But sometimes, the NRMA recognises that speed isn’t everything – as we demonstrated when we fought and ultimately helped overturn the reduction of the maximum limit on the Newell Highway.

The road safety branch of the former Roads and Traffic Authority (now Roads and Maritime Services) reduced the speed limit from 110km/h to 100km/h in 2009 without talking to road users or properly consulting police, sparking widespread outrage.

The NRMA uncovered data that revealed the change would increase travel time between the Victorian and Queensland borders by an hour – on a road where fatigue was the number one cause of accidents – as well as making overtaking semi-trailers more difficult and dangerous.

Sustained lobbying drew a promise from the NSW Coalition that they would reset the speed limit to 110km/h if elected and this vow was honoured in July 2011, which was vindicated when data released the following year showed that the Newell had been the safest highway in NSW.