Is speed the best predictor of crashes?

Speed and speed cameras are controversial topics in Australia. The prevailing belief is that speed kills. Even so, the presence of speed cameras does not seem to be lowering deaths on the road. Some say our driving skills are just not good enough. Is it possible our obsession with speed is stopping us from seeing the real problem?

Speed is still a strong predictor

Researchers at a Canadian university recently analysed 28 million trips for the crash risks of four poor driving styles. They compared speeding with hard braking, hard acceleration and hard cornering, and found only speeding was a strong predictor of crash risk. However, they would have to compare other factors in crash risk to be sure speed is the only strong predictor.

Roads and Maritime Services records the involvement of alcohol, speed and fatigue in fatal crashes in NSW. In the year to July 2019, excessive speed was definitely implicated in 36.5% of crashes. Fatigue was involved in 16.6% and alcohol in 14.8% of all crashes. While 67.9% of crash causes are known, these are still the only three we measure.

We still do not measure fatalities caused by illegal mobile phone use, which seems very strange.

No data about mobile phone use

When contacted recently about including mobile phone use as a factor in fatalities, Transport for NSW directed to crash data from 2010-2014 and mobile phone fines issued in 2014-2015. We were well aware of old statistics.

Its July 2019 road deaths report still fails to include mobile phones. At the same time, the NSW government is cracking down very hard on mobile use while driving and putting in technology that can catch people doing it. It seems ironic to have a hard crackdown when there are no statistics to back it up.

At least we know people who excessively speed can cause a crash. But is it possible travelling too slowly can also cause a crash? Drivers can become more easily distracted by mobile phones when travelling at low speeds.

Are we losing our driving skills?

We are also wondering about the unintended effect of so much driver assistance technology. Is it lulling drivers into a stupor or, worse, causing them to rely too heavily on these systems?

Drivers appear to be losing some of the basic skills of driving because their vehicles do the work. It is no longer a prime skill to reverse a car into a parking space. Moreover, many drivers now rely on lane keeping assist, emergency braking, or adaptive cruise control instead of their own abilities.

When intelligent speed assist comes in, as mandated by the EU, you will be forced to drive to the speed limit! What will happen to speed camera revenue then?

Speed cameras …hmm

Speed cameras bring state governments around $1.1 billion each year. But they do not seem to reduce lives lost: deaths in NSW are up 2% from 242 as at September 2018 compared to 247 as at September 2019. Severe injuries in 2018 are down 9.4% from 12,340 to 11,180. While speed cameras may help reduce serious injuries, modern cars are also much better at protecting occupants in case of a crash.

According to DriveTribe, in 2018:

  • The UK raised $150 million from speeding fines, with a population of 66 million and a fatal crash rate of 2.9 per 100,000 people
  • Australia raised nearly ten times more in fines, with a population of just over a third and a worse crash rate of 5.4 per 100,000.

Apart from issue lower fines, what does the UK do that Australia doesn’t? They drive differently over there. They drive faster, more confidently and, given very crowded conditions, they have to drive skilfully. Compared to British drivers, Australians seem slow, sluggish and uninvolved with the task of driving.

The competent driver

Road safety authority, Robert Solomon claimed: “a competent driver at 120 km/hr is far less dangerous than an incompetent one at 80 km/hr”. Supercars Greg Murphy also blames poor driving skills, rather than poor roads or fast speeds.

However, nothing is being done to improve driver training in Australia. Authorities assume, once we pass the test as an adolescent, we know what we’re doing from then on. This is in spite of driving conditions changing markedly during a driving life.

As more in-car technologies start doing the driving for us, we are concerned drivers will lose their skills completely. Then the rate of deaths and injuries may even go up.

Corrina Baird

Writer and expert

Corrina used to lend her car to her kids and discovered first hand what Ls, Ps and demerits mean for greenslips. After 20 years of writing and research in financial services, she’s an expert in the NSW CTP scheme. Read more about Corrina

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