Political solutions to the problem of trying to get technical solutions

Speed kills. One of the most significant cause of road crashes is speed. Even when they’re not hurting or killing people, speeding cars contribute to the sense of fear and unpleasantness that puts people off walking. Stopping illegal speeding is an important road safety goal for governments in most of the world, New Zealand included.

So that raises the question - why is it even possible? Why do we build cars that can be driven faster than the speed limit? Germany has electronic limiters stopping cars going over 255 km/h. Japan limits them to 180 km/h, and all of our used imports still have these limiters in them. Our top speed limit is 100km/h, although it may go up to 110 km/h in the future. So why not limit all cars to go no faster than that?

We can go further, too. GPS technology and a regularly-updated database of speed limits would allow a device to limit vehicle speeds based on the actual speed limit in the area. 30km/h limits on suburban streets could be enforced, or 10km/h limits in shared spaces. Emergency vehicles would be able to turn it off when their lights were going, and approved motorsport organisations would be able to turn it off as well, for closed road events. The GPS would also know where racetracks were, so it wouldn’t be applied for track days and club racing.

So what of it?

This is not an original or difficult idea by any means. Many carmakers are proposing driverless cars, which would require all of this technology and far, far more. But it’s never gotten any traction from governments or car-makers. Why not?

The answer is pretty simple - politics. Lots of drivers speed on a regular basis, especially while overtaking. There are roads where most drivers speed. The speed limits pass political muster because they’re only seldom enforced, often with heavy discretion. When they are enforced, police and governments are accused of “revenue-gathering”. In a climate like this, politicians are loathe to put their name on a proposal that would actually be effective in preventing speeding.

Speed limiters are a technical solution. But in order to get them to happen, we need a political solution to the problem of trying to get the technical solution to happen. How do we do this? Well, here’s an idea.

Let’s take an idea that’s normally used as an argument against this sort of thing - the slippery slope, also known as “salami tactics” - slice by slice.

What next?

The first step is actually getting the technology created. It’s straightforward in principle, but does actually need to be developed. It will need to be integrated into cars fairly closely if it’s going to be tamper-proof, so we need to get carmakers to do it. So the first step is to get a carmaker to do it.

So let’s do something that no-one could object to: make politicians put their money where their mouths are. It would be hypocritical to speed while advocating that others don’t speed. So step one - when tendering for new Crown Cars, insist they have a speed limiter capability. It would only be turned on for when the Minister of Transport is being transported, but would be fitted for all of the cars. Who could object to that? Crown Cars are usually BMWs, Mercedes and the like, companies who normally are at the cutting edge of car tech, load out cars with lots of options, and sell them at a vastly inflated price anyway.

Then, once the technology’s there, carmakers can start to offer it as an option on new models. The government can require that crown cars and government fleet cars turn it on if it’s enabled. Then they start to insist on buying cars with the technology.

So far, we’ve only applied the speed limiter technology to civil servants at work, and the political objection to that is going to be minimal. But we wanted it to be universal, so we’re going to start to need to take another step. Who else is not important, politically? Those who can’t vote - foreigners, and young people. We require speed limiters for rental cars, and cars used for driver training. Then for local council vehicles. Then taxis. Then trucks.

By this stage, speed limiters will be technology that every carmaker offers on new cars, as an option, and some will be standard, even if it’s not turned on. Health and safety at work is rightly a priority, and there’s no good reason not to turn it on if the car is fitted with a limiter. So we’ll require it for company cars, either explicitly, or through the general arse-covering that comes with non-specific health and safety laws.

The end-game

You’ve still avoided the major fight at this stage, that of personal cars, the majority of those on the road. But such a large fraction will be limited that we should start to see a decline in speeding. More of the time will be spent following speed-limited vehicles. The figures will be looking better.

And then you have a rather different story. With the safety record improving for all the cars with limiters, it will get harder to argue in favour of unlimited speeds, especially since speeding remains as illegal as ever. Are you advocating against a measure that would make it harder to break the law and endanger lives? It’ll no longer be speculative, unproven technology, but something that most cars come with, just disabled.

I’m not saying it’ll be easy then, either. But you’ll have already solved part of the speeding problem, and be in a much better position to argue for more.

There’s no reason to solve a social problem the hard way when there’s an easy technological solution instead. So how about making a start?