L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

08 July 2006 Blog Home : July 2006 : Permalink

Driving Fast not Dangerously

One of the things that irritates me from time to time are speed cameras and speed limits. Not always mind you, there are times and places where excessive speed is indeed dangerous, and a lot of places where excessive speed for certain types of vehicles (lorries, busses, trailer towing cars...) is more dangerous than for other vehicles. But over all I think that there is strong evidence that the relationship between speed and accidents is not one that shows any special correlation. Certainly traffic fatalities are not close to correlating wth universal speed limits - the WSJ has a piece on the evidence presented by the US in the last ten years that has been quoted in the blogosphere - and it is not the only evidence; it doesn't take much to do some cross European comparisons and see that on Motorways death shows no correlation with either the speed limit or the average usage of the highway. This ABD page has some interesting charts based on data in the late 1990s:
Motorways — Deaths per billion vehicle-km.
Portugal  14.1
Italy  12.8
Austria  8.9
Belgium  7.2
France  5.4
Finland  5.0
Germany  4.5
Denmark  4.3
Ireland  4.0
Switzerland  3.3
Netherlands  3.3
Sweden  3.2
United Kingdom  2.0
Motorway usage
(Average daily vehicle flow)
United Kingdom  64,900
Netherlands  52,400
Germany  45,800
Belgium  44,600
Switzerland  38,200
France  29,400
Denmark  26,700
Italy  26,000
Ireland  26,000
Austria  25,600
Portugal  25,100
Sweden  17,700
From these charts is is clear that Germany, which has no maximum speed on its motorways is safer than many countries such as Italy, that do have a maximum speed despite being the thrid most busy highways in the survey group.

It is also interesting to see the impact (or lack of impact) of speed cameras. From the ERF there is a PDF with a table on P42 that shows the drop in road fatalities across western Europe in the last 35 years, despite increases in traffic in all nations.

Belgium Denmark
Germany Greece Spain France Ireland Italy Luxem-
Austria Portugal Finland Sweden UK
1970 2,950 1,208 21,332 1,099 5,456 16,448 540 11,004 132 3,181 2,507 1,842 1,055 1,307 7,770
1980 2,396 690 15,050 1,445 6,522 13,672 564 9,220 98 1,997 2,003 2,941 551 848 6,240
1990 1,976 634 11,046 2,050 9,032 11,215 478 7,137 71 1,376 1,558 3,017 649 772 5,402
2000 1,470 498 7,503 2,037 5,777 8,079 418 6,410 70 1,082 976 1,874 396 591 3,580
2001 1,486 431 6,977 1,880 5,516 8,160 412 6,682 69 993 958 1,671 433 583 3,598
2002 1,315 463 6,842 1,654 5,347 7,655 376 6,736 62 987 956 1,655 415 560 3,581
2003 n,a 432 6,613 1,615 5,394 6,058 339 6,015 53 1,028 931 1,546 379 529 3,658

However in France subsequent to 2003 road fatalities have decreased significantly (to 5000/year in 2005) due to an increased emphasis on enforcement of traffic regulations including the use of speed cameras. It is interesting to note that, as the FIA foundation study of read deaths in France (PDF) notes, the decrease started in 2002/2003 even though the speed cameras were not introduced until late 2003. It will also be interesting to see if the continuing roll out in 2006 of even more speed cameras cuts the deaths more or not. From my observations of where many of the newer cameras are being placed I would expect the drop to continue but be less great than that in previous years. Why? because the really bad black spots got their cameras earlier and what we are seeing now is the cameras being placed in less dangerous locations. Indeed I suspect that in the next year or two we will see considerable back pressure from drivers because increasingly the cameras are being seen, as in the UK, as partly revenue generators rather than accident preventers. There is, however, one saving grace of the French system; so far it does not seem to have occured to the French authorities to lie about the existence of their cameras and put up the signs without a camera, likewise they have not attempted to conceal the cameras or not warn about their presence so that they come as a surprise.

It is also notable that the French have also introduced a lot more traffic calming measures (speed bumps and roundabouts) and have just about completely removed the incredibly dangerous "priorité à droit" junctions that frequently take non-locals by surprise, although the statistics seem to indicate that the largest drop in fatalities has occured on motorways.

However there is, as I believe the US experience indicates, a big difference beween the stopping of the nutters from driving far too fast and inconveniencing everyone for little or no effect. In that regard it is worth recalling that the rural Autoroute speed in France of 130km/h (~= 80mph) is faster than the 70mph of the UK, yet it seems quite possible that motorway fatalities on French autoroutes will be similar to British motorway deaths in the near future and that they will be similar (after adjustment for network size/population etc.) to German autobahn fatalities, despite the fact that much of the latter have no speed limit. I have driven at well over 200km/h on German roads quite safely becuase the roads in question had very little traffic and I have absolutely no doubt that I could travel just as fast and just as safely on large parts of the French autoroute network and on parts of the UK motorway network (although UK motoroways are far busier so it is harder). This is one reason why I think that blanket speed limits are not particularly effective. Most people agree that enforcement of speed limits in dangerous areas is a good thing. I suspect that all but the most purist of libertarians feel that cutting deaths at a particular black spot by placing a prominent speed camera just before the danger zone is a good idea, but elsewhere the idea of a maximum speed limit seems somewhat pointless.

As I sort of hint at above, the idea of a speed limit is particularly stupid on empty major roads. The French already have a lower speed limit (110km/h) for wet roads and that seems like a good idea that could be extended. It would seem to me that speed limits should come into play as traffic volume increases in a way simialr to the UK's M25 variable speed limits - at 8am Sunday morning there are few places on the motorway where there is any point in having a speed limit so feel free to be a boy racer. at 8am Monday on the other hand the speed limit in busy sections could be something like 90km/h in certain spots with cameras to record the idiots who are determined to drive like idiots and weave between lanes.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin