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Should speed limits evolve with cars?

26.07.2013

Cars are faster and safer than ever before. Yet we find ourselves driving at the same speed limits set decades ago. Should we demand faster limits on our roads?

Whenever I test a performance car - or any vehicle in fact - I’m often confronted with the realisation that I will never be able to utilise this car to its full potential on our public roads and neither will anyone else who buys it, because of the law.

Admittedly, most motorists purchase their vehicles purely because they look good and will get them from point A to B safely. But why then do we have cars that can reach speeds in excess of 200km/h when, if you’re ever caught doing speeds of this magnitude, you will surely spend an evening in the big house behind bars.

So I ask: should the speed limit be increased to allow motorists to take better advantage of modern automobiles or would these increase road casualties tenfold? I know an endless debate will ensue. But we know speed is not the only factor when it comes to road accidents. In fact, most deaths on South African roads are usually alcohol related or caused by unroadworthy vehicles.

Now imagine we lived in a country where people replaced their tyres when necessary and didn’t drink before heading out onto our roads. Do you think increasing the speed limit would then be a good idea?

Imagine the possibilities: the distances you could cover and the time you could save. Most of us know that certain parts of the Autobahn in Germany don’t have speed limits and the yearly death toll is significantly lower than ours.

So what are we doing wrong? Granted, the very nature of driving is dangerous, but the fact that motorists can be involved in a collision at horrendous speeds and still walk away unharmed just shows how far technology has evolved in vehicle safety. So why haven’t our speed limits increased?

After a considerable amount of research it became rather clear. Yes, automobiles have evolved drastically over the last 100 years and even more so in the last 30 years. But have we, as humans, evolved over that same period?

Bluntly, no! Our reaction times aren’t any faster than our grandparents’ and our bodies aren’t any better at withstanding injuries caused by the force of an accident. So while our types of transportation have evolved well beyond our means, our bodies have been left in the dark ages.

As researchers put it, the human body can only reach speeds of around 30km/h when sprinting and this requires a lot of energy from the individual. Your heart’s racing as the blood pumps through your body and the strain on your joints and massive movement essentially tells you that you are going fast. Hence your body can react.

In a motor vehicle, this is not the case. The energy involved is a lot lower. You are basically pressing an accelerator pedal of a car, which propels the car - and your body - to do speeds well over what we were designed to do and with relatively no movement on our part.

The biological feedback we receive from our brain is effectively that of no movement as our lungs and hearts and legs aren’t supplying our brain with the necessary information it would normally receive if we were sprinting. Beyond this, modern-day vehicles have improved sound elimination and reduced engine noise, making it even more challenging to obey the speed limit as we are not always aware of the speeds at which we are travelling, purely because it doesn’t feel that fast.

So I ask the same question again: should we have increased speed limits? Probably not. We have enough carnage on our roads as it is. Most drivers already seem dopey on the road. Throw into the mix the rather sad state of roads and one might propose that we should rather lower our speed limits.

The obvious reason why the Autobahn works so well in Germany - besides being better built and also better maintained - is because drivers undergo rigorous training to ensure that they are ready to tackle any conditions they may encounter on the road. This includes night driving and training on the Autobahn.

So while the human species haven’t evolved at the same pace of automobiles, in some countries they are at least being trained to try and cope and handle the new situation they find themselves in.

Maybe this is why the Autobahn works, because the drivers are better prepared. In South Africa we would have to do the same: mentally and physically prepare our drivers to head out onto the roads, instead of just giving them a little piece of paper saying they can now drive because they could pull off on a hill or, even worse, slipped the examiner a few extra bucks.

Article written by Stuart Moir
26.07.2013
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