29 Apr 2014

The Speed Kills Campaign Is Just Stupid

I am not usually one to rant, at least in writing, but today something pushed me over the edge. Something needed to be done, something stronger than an email to the BBC or a letter to The Daily Telegraph.

I turned to SpeedMonkey.

The question of how high or low speed limits should or should not be is one that has been pondered over for as long as we have had cars on the road, and it will continue to be debated until such time as we can be transported in an exciting Star Trek like fashion.

I will make it clear now that I am open to both angles of the faster-slower argument, provided there is enough evidence to back up a point, but that I personally sit squarely on the “We-Can-Probably-Go-Faster-Without-Killing-Ourselves” side of the fence.

Having driven a fair bit as part of my job, in both the UK and elsewhere in the world, I’ve been lucky enough to experience all sorts of different road cultures, from the mad and altogether slightly alarming bicycle-crazy Amsterdam, to the faster and still just as alarming Autobahns of Germany.

As a result, what I believe absolutely is that speed does not kill. Before you reach for your shotguns, please allow me to elaborate.

I am not for one moment trying to belittle how serious deaths on the roads are – it is something I try not to think about too much when driving, but it does terrify me, the idea that it can happen to anyone at any time, and I am aware of that every time I step into a car.

I am also not trying to deny that the speed at which an impact occurs, whether it be between a car and another car, or someone’s head and steering wheel, makes a difference to the injuries that people experience; It’s basic physics, and the faster you go the more energy and momentum there is.

But my problem with the tagline ‘Speed Kills’ is that, yes, higher speeds mean you have more energy and the forces involved are greater, but that very line puts speed as the cause, which it isn’t – speed merely contributes to the severity of the accident.

If I drive on a straight road with nothing to hit at 50mph or 70mph, I am not in any more danger than if I were driving at 250mph. Of course, if something does go wrong then you have more energy in the car and you might not be able to respond to a situation as well as if you were going slowly, but the key there is “if something does go wrong”, something outside of the domain of ‘speed’ – speed is just a number and doesn’t ‘try’ to kill you.

Besides, the idea of living a life of fear, not driving anywhere with any pace for fear of being killed isn’t one that many of us would choose to live. It would be like not going outside for fear of being hit by lightening.

For speed to kill, it needs to be combined with something else, in the same way a gun is not a killing machine left to its own devices, locked away in a box.

Driving at an excessive speed in proportion to the conditions, taking unnecessary risks, exceeding your abilities and the abilities of the car, driving too quickly on an unfamiliar road, driving after a few too many sherries etc. causes the accident, speed just means there’s going to be more damage done if something goes wrong.

This rather long argument of mine (I apologise) is why I felt somewhat irritated at a leaflet that was put through my door this morning.

The slogan read “20’s Plenty”, and the headline asked “Would you like your town to be a better place to live? Do you want safer, quieter streets?

If you haven’t made a cup of tea recently, I suggest you do it now before you continue reading.

Essentially, the leaflet is part of a campaign to let people know that there is a consultation in my town of Worthing to decide whether imposing 20mph limits in residential streets is a good idea. The catchment area for the lower limits include almost every road in the town, with the exception of the slightly larger roads that act as the town’s arteries.

So, the following paragraphs detail what the leaflet says, and I have responded as best I can with my opinion. You might agree, you might disagree – regardless, this is what I have to say.

Would you like your town to be a better place to live? Do you want safer, quieter streets?

Yes, of course I would like my town to be a better place to live – I am not a child of the devil who wishes pain and suffering on all. But does lowering the speed limits clean the streets, or make homes more picturesque, or reduce poverty and malnutrition? As far as I know, it does not.

Of course I want safer, quieter streets, but safety is, as I have explained, not defined by speed, but by a number of other factors like how you behave or decisions you make. Jumping in front of a car, regardless of the speed, is not a good idea.

And as for making the streets quieter? Volume relies on so many factors, none of which is specified in this flyer. Tyre profiles make a difference, engine type and size make a difference, gearing makes a difference, road surface makes a difference, music makes a difference, a faulty car makes a difference. If you’re driving a Toyota Prius at 20mph on 24 inch wheels with studded tyres, on a broken surface, with a stereo playing Queen at such a volume that you’d be forgiven for thinking Brian May was actually in the car, I can guarantee it would make a lot more noise than a Ferrari Enzo driven respectfully at 30mph on a good surface and in the right gear. Speed has nothing to with it, and the idea that the turbulence created by a car at 20mph would be dramatically less than a car doing 30mph is laughable. Ramp it up to 180mph and you might have a point.

The next few lines raise some more issues: “No cameras, no speed humps, just the people agreeing to make our town a safer, more pleasant place for everyone.

No cameras or speed bumps means no enforcement, and the majority of people will not pay attention to a sign if the conditions will allow them to drive at 30 rather than 20. If there are people around then, of course, they might drive at 20, but that’s using common sense, something that this leaflet assumes drivers do not have. If there’s no extra enforcement, what’s the worst that will happen? A disapproving shake of the head from a pedestrian? Oh, the shame.

And lowering the speed limit does not make it a “more pleasant place for everyone” – driving to the conditions and not behaving like a tit will make it a more pleasant place for everyone.

This is your ONE chance to make your voice heard. If you would like safer, quieter streets for children, for pedestrians of all ages, for cyclist and for drivers, then … Please vote YES!

This is not our “ONE” chance to make our voice heard, as we live in something of a democracy and we’re quite happy voicing our opinions. (Also, note the desperation in their use of capitalisation.)

Safer, quieter streets…” – are you noticing a slight repetition of something that's fundamentally flawed and quite idealistic? “For children, for pedestrians of all ages” is another hilarious cry for help, because as I understand it the pavement is designed for pedestrians and the road is designed for cars. Crossing the road is a choice the pedestrian makes, and reducing the speed won’t make the pedestrian’s choice to cross any more dangerous. If a car is doing 20 or 30 and you step in front of it when it’s five yards away then you are going to be killed, regardless.

One final word on that paragraph is that they should have said ‘cyclists’ not ‘cyclist’ – proofreading usually helps with campaigns.

Better for the community… All of us will feel safer and happier to walk, cycle or chat with neighbours.

It is not better for the community. We won’t feel safer and happier to walk as, I say again, we shouldn’t walk in the road, nor do we chat with our neighbours in the road, and happiness with walking is not dependant upon car speed. Having a broken leg would make you less happy to walk, not passing vehicle speed.

Better for health… Walking and cycling for short journeys is great for getting more exercise. Parents can be more confident about letting their children walk, scoot or cycle. Avoiding short car journeys reduces air pollution, and saves money. Traffic noise problems will be reduced.

In this one statement, the writers are making so many assumptions and ideological statements that they might as well have a say in every aspect of governmental and legislative life.

Let’s work backwards. Traffic noise problems will not be reduced, as I’ve said. Avoiding short car journeys, of course, reduces air pollution and saves money, but so does not breathing or moving? If I want so spend money driving a car then that’s my decision.

Parents can be more confident about letting their children walk, scoot or cycle” is a statement that provides a number of issues. Parent confidence is not necessarily proportional to local traffic speed. Your child’s ability to ride a bicycle would make you more confident, as would them wearing a helmet, and remember that if they’re cycling on a road then they are a vehicle of the road, and surely it is as much their responsibility to behave appropriately for the road and the conditions as it is a car’s.

Better for health… Walking and cycling for short journeys is great for getting more exercise” is a line that I read in disbelief. This has nothing to do with reducing the speed limit, unless you are insinuating that I will become so unspeakably angered by the lowered limit that I will quit driving. I spend most of my time on a bicycle, and so if I’m in a car I’m either driving a car to review it (something that I need to do if I want to eat and, in general, live on anything other than bread and water) or driving a journey that would be impractical or impossible by foot or bike. Worst of all, though, is that this is an idealistic, lifestyle statement. As I spend so much time driving, I’m fully aware that if I don’t exercise I will end up looking like Jabba the Hutt after a heavy night in McDonalds, and as such I spend my free time cycling, running, boxing, walking… This reads more like an election line for the Green Party than a legitimate argument as to the benefits of lowering the speed limits. I’ll exercise if I want to, so leave me alone and let me drive my car.

Better for safety… If a child steps out three car lengths in front of you, at 20mph you could stop in time. At 30mph you would hit them still doing 27mph and potentially seriously injure or even kill them. Hit at 20mph and there is a 99% chance of survival.

Firstly, I could point out that a child should have looked to see if there was a car coming, but I’m aware that these things do happen, so that hardly seems a valid point for me to argue. But, as usual, this statement does not take into consideration the car that’s being driven. Good maintenance, decent brakes, and paying attention to the road could mean you brake in time – it is not a certainty that you’ll hit them.

Will journeys take longer and use more fuel?... No, there will be little or no change to journey times: most people live within 500 meters of a 30mph through road. Driving more slowly at a steady pace will save fuel and reduce pollution, unless and unnecessarily low gear is used.

This is getting tiring. Speed is distance over time, so if you needed to travel 30 miles one afternoon, at 30mph it would take one hour, and at 20mph it would take one and a half hours, 50% longer. So what if you live within 500 meters of a 30mph zone? That doesn’t make up for lost time. And really, the pollution argument again?

Finally, the leaflet asks “Who supports the 20mph limits?... The majority of the public; Road safety groups; Health organisations; Cycling organisations; The government; People like their street to be a quieter, more pleasant place to live.

To make statements as bold as this, with no evidence or reference to names, is, to put it kindly, flawed. The majority of the public are not in favour, and for the last time: lowering the speed limit will not clean up our roads, make them more picturesque, improve out health, happiness or wellbeing, or make our streets quieter and more pleasant places to live!

I am not against better road safety, but reducing the speed won’t change the way people drive, make them check their brakes, force them to focus more on their surroundings when there are lots of pedestrians nearby…

We need to change the way we approach driving before we change the limit.

By Sean Ward