In a major step toward safer speed limits in Australia, Yarra Council in Victoria voted on 14 November 2023 (minutes) to support an increase to the area covered by the safe 30km/h speed limit, by around 200%. If it is supported by the Victorian Government the 30km/h speed limit zone will be expanded from the existing area in northern Fitzroy and Collingwood to cover the expanded area to the south (in blue).
In making their decision the Council considered a safety study compiled using data from the Victorian Government's Road Crash Information System database. The safety study found that in the five years since the 30km/h speed limit zone was implemented, serious crashes in the area dropped by 70 per cent compared to the five years prior, while noting the added effect of COVID lockdowns. The report to Council can be accessed (here at item 7.2) and on ABC news here.
However, two days later on 16 November, the Chief Commissioner of Victorian Police Shane Patton was on ABC Radio Melbourne saying he was not aware of any evidence that 30km/h speed limits would reduce road trauma. He said, “I think no one is going to obey it ... it’s ridiculous”. You can listen here around minute 15:30.
His views are similar to those of many people in the community for whom driving is a central part of their identity and life, and driving fast is celebrated. It is problematic however that as police commissioner he is unaware of the large body of evidence that lower speeds reduce trauma, put forward very recently to a state parliamentary inquiry looking into reducing road deaths by the Victorian Government’s Road Safety Partnership (made up of the Transport Accident Commission and the Transport, Justice and Health Departments).
More problematic is that the way he expressed himself might give people the impression that Victorian Police would not enforce the speed limit if it became law. The Safe Systems approach, that underpins most of Australian road safety, relies on consistent and comprehensive enforcement as a foundational element to shifting community views and behaviours to achieve lower injury and death rates.
Fortunately, the Chief Commissioner has been publicly called out in Victoria’s newspaper of record. In an editorial in the Age (Nov 2023) Patrick Elligett described how far behind international best practice Australia is in relation to adopting safe 30 km/h speed zoning in urban areas. His column explains how 30km/h speed limits that initially seem problematic to a lot of people can quickly become normalised: ‘often, once unpopular decisions are implemented, it can be hard to believe there was ever resistance.’ That in the past Australia has been a leader in adopting new road safety measures but has not kept pace more recently. Examples that he cited may sound shocking to modern ears, like wearing seatbelts (in 1970 considered an affront to personal liberty!) or not driving while affected by alcohol or drugs (introduced in Victoria in 1976).
It is a long road to get from where we are to safe streets for everyone. As a community we are all relying on the support of police and their leaders. This mini-drama highlights the importance of the relationships between ministers with responsibility for transport and police portfolios. When politicians talk to police leadership they must prioritise discussions about how enforcement efforts can be used to promote community safety, not perpetuate social attitudes where many people feel entitled to drive at dangerously high speeds that result in killing and wounding of other people.
Read more about safer speeds here.