40km speed limit and cyclist safety

Road sign in Antrim, County Antrim, August 2009 - image by Ardfern, from Wikimedia Commons
Road sign in Antrim, County Antrim, August 2009 – image by Ardfern, from Wikimedia Commons

JUCA is pleased that the national government has set in motion a process to increase safety on our streets by reducing speed limits. Proposed amendments to the National Road Traffic Act will reduce speed limits within urban areas to 40kms/hour.

This is an important move that could help to reduce the ongoing carnage on our roads. Further it will make our streets more inclusive spaces where others such as pedestrians, trolley pushers, cyclists, people pushing prams, using wheelchairs can move with less trepidation.

International research has shown that reducing vehicle speed limits results in reduced injuries and fatalities. See the table below.

Vehicle Speed Likelihood of fatality to pedestrians
32 kms/hour 3%
48.3kms/hour 20%
64.4kms/hour 90%

Source:Fact Sheet: “30 kph Speed Limits and Cyclist Safety”, www.ecf.com

However simply reducing the speed limit without proper enforcement will do little to change driving practices. As it is, even in zones where urban speed limits are set at 60km/hr, there is little compliance. Why is this? The reason is a design one.

Currently, our roads are designed to comfortably cater for higher than posted speed limits. This means that unless there is strict enforcement, it is physically very easy for motorists to achieve higher speeds. In a context where we know that enforcement is poor, the primary solution cannot only be to reduce the legal speed limit.

We have to redesign our streets in a way which reflects the prioritized speed of the preferred modes of transport. For example, narrow roads with calming measures tend to ensure lower speeds and optimal conditions for pedestrians and cyclists. In this we can borrow a leaf from the Vision Zero concept in reducing traffic related injuries and fatalities.

Pioneered in Sweden and now wildly popular elsewhere, Vision Zero is premised simply on the notion that “no loss of life is acceptable.” The starting point for the approach is that most safety issues – most accidents – on our roads occur due to human error. Together with raw evidence as illustrated in the table above that human bodies can only withstand so much physical impact, road systems are designed so that when accidents occur – which they will given the propensity for human error – they are not fatal.

Therefore in addition to reduced speed limits, we also want greater attention to how our roads are designed. If we don’t also attend to road design, we will be fighting a losing battle.