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Open speeds on Northern Territory roads: not so fast

David J Read
Med J Aust 2015; 203 (1): 14-15. || doi: 10.5694/mja15.00239

Road safety should remain a public health priority, not a political issue

Annual road deaths in Australia have decreased from 7.9 to 5.2 per 100 000 population in the period from 2004 to 2013 (Box).1 In contrast to the national figures, the Northern Territory has recorded a mean of 21.8 deaths per 100 000 over the same period.

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  • David J Read

  • National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre, Darwin, NT.

Correspondence: DavidJ.Read@nt.gov.au

Acknowledgements: 

I acknowledge Christopher Gowing for his assistance in preparing this manuscript.

Competing interests:

No relevant disclosures.

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access_time 03:20, 22 June 2015
Ian J Faulks

A very useful article on the 'no speed limits' policy being implemented by the current Northern Territory government. A commentary on the decision made to re-introduce open speed limits was published as a commissioned article in The Conversation in October 2013, see:
https://theconversation.com/goodbye-speed-limits-the-nts-risky-road-safety-strategy-19241.

Dr Read's article confirms the issues that I raised in this earlier article.

It is worthwhile, I think, to read through the published comments made in response to The Conversation article. I note, in particular, a comment by John Lambert earlier in 2015: "The fatality rate on this section of road [the part of the Stuart Highway subject to open speed limits] prior to the trial was around 2.5 - 3 times higher than would be expected on a rural road based on 272 km with 410 vehicles per day. Average deaths were 1.2 per annum and fatal crashes would have been around 1 per year. And the number of those 12 fatalities over 10 years expected to be due to inappropriate speed would have been around 3 so the fact the number was zero is statistically possible due to chance alone. Over the 11 months of the trial to date, the fact there has not been a fatality means absolutely nothing. What they need to be using is fatal plus serious injury crashes. And even then it would take at least three years before any finding of significance could possibly be made - if the variation in crash rates was low then it would take much longer."

Despite some publicised reports of excessively high speeds being reached (e.g., a driver taking a Porsche 918 hybrid sports car to 350km/h, Northern Territory News, April 15, 2015 12:00AM http://www.ntnews.com.au/news/only-in-the-territory/porsche-918-hybrid-sports-car-does-350kmh-on-stuart-highway-in-northern-territory/story-fnk2tg5d-1227303666639), it seems that most drivers are choosing to travel at the speeds they drove prior to the trial commencing. That is, drivers are electing to drive at 120-140 km/h in daylight conditions for light passenger vehicles, much slower for other vehicles and at night. To date, the Northern Territory government has not released any comparative speed distributions for the Stuart Highway section subject to the open speed limits trial, despite claiming the trial to have already been a success and announcing that planning is underway to open further sections of highways in the Northern Territory to the no speed limits policy.

Competing Interests: Over 2007-2009, Ian was, together with Professor Mark Stevenson and Professor Rebecca Ivers, appointed as the Northern Territory Road Safety Expert.

Mr Ian J Faulks
Queensland University of Technology

access_time 08:41, 23 June 2015
Rosalie S Schultz

Thanks for great perspective Professor Read.
I'd like to draw attention to your statement:
"Allowing individual motorists to drive to conditions seems optimistic and discounts that there will always be a cohort of inexperienced drivers."
In fact the introduction of speed limits in the first place was because it is impossible for individual motorists to drive safely to conditions. The NT government is taking us back 70 years to an era before speed limits, in a time when there are cars that can drive 300km/h. Sadly it is people such as Professor Read himself as trauma surgeon, those who are killed on NT roads both local and visitors, and their friends and relatives, and all tax payers who pay for this childish policy.

Competing Interests: No relevant disclosures

Dr Rosalie S Schultz
Public Health Association of Australia NT Branch

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