Dubai: Speed limit signs are the most important signposts on roads for most motorists. For many, knowing the maximum speed limit on a road is key to saving a lot of money, as a little inattention could cost hundreds, if not thousands, in speed radar fines.

Let’s look at some numbers.

In 2016, between the start of the year and up until October 23, Dubai Police had issued 16,005 speeding tickets to motorists driving over the 60km/h speed limit. This is a decrease from 20,859 fines in 2015.

There was also a significant drop in fines issued to motorists racing on the roads — from 362 in 2015 to 86 until October 23, 2016.

According to the Dubai Police, 18 people were killed in traffic incidents involving speeding vehicles, an increase from 13 deaths due to speeding in 2015.

To better understand the role speed limits play in enhancing road safety and how the limits are set, Gulf News spoke with experts, road engineers and a Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) official.

According to Maitha Mohammad Bin Adai, CEO of RTA’s Traffic and Roads Agency, the main aim of setting speed limits is to reduce the number of speed-related casualties.

“Speed limits need to be appropriate for the road to which they apply and should reflect the road function, traffic composition, frontage development and road design characteristics. The objectives of speed management are accident and casualty reduction achieved through driver compliance with the posted speed limit,” said Bin Adai.

By monitoring the number of speed-related casualties on a continuous basis, the effectiveness of the speed limit can be assessed, she added.

Over the last decade, road accidents in the UAE have reduced significantly due to stricter enforcement of law, better public safety campaigns and better quality of roads.

According to the numbers released by the Ministry of Interior, the UAE currently has 6.52 road fatalities per 100,000 people, down from 22 per 100,000 recorded more than 10 years back.

The UAE aims to achieve zero road fatalities per 100,000 people by 2020, However, accident statistics from the first half of 2016 suggest that there is a rise in road fatalities.

So, in this context, is it worth asking if speed limits alone are effective in curbing speeding-related accidents? And should speed limits be reviewed from time to time?

Transport and traffic engineer Nadeem Shakir, who is the technical director, transport planning at Aurecon, a consulting engineers firm, argues that though the current speeds on the UAE roads have been posted using well-defined scientific methods, there is room for improvement in setting the standards for road safety.

“Road safety audits, identification of the accident black spots and regular updates of speed surveys to estimate the 85th percentile speed, which is the speed at which 85 per cent of the vehicles travel on a particular road, are some of the key measures that can be considered to update the speed limit on any road of the city,” said Shakir.

He is in concurrence with the role speed limits play in curbing speeding, but also offers, “But this is not necessarily always true. Accidents occur mostly due to improper road design or due to the negligence from the road users. A 120 kmph well-designed road would be safer than a 20 kmph poorly designed street. However, it cannot be ignored that the impact of accidents occurring at the higher speeds are more detrimental,” said Shakir.

Traffic expert Phil Clarke, principal consultant (road safety and incident management) at Abu Dhabi-based Traffic Research Laboratory, agreed that speed limits do play a role in reducing accident rates, but added that not all accidents are caused by vehicles exceeding speed limits.

“It is important to investigate accidents and analyse the data to establish the causes of all accidents, especially the most serious and fatal accidents. If such investigations and analysis suggest that the speed limit on a road is inappropriate, it should be reviewed.

“Routinely reviewing speed limits is unlikely to have much of an impact on the number of crashes, as the causes are numerous and mostly driver error related,” said Clarke.

“Speed limits are only a guide to drivers. A posted speed limit may be higher than the safe speed to drive, if the prevailing traffic, weather or visibility conditions make it so. Undoubtedly, without speed limits the accident rate would be higher as they do regulate speeds,” he said.

The two experts also suggested that apart from the setting of speed limits, enforcement is also important.

“They (speed limits) need to be enforced and the thresholds for enforcement need to be appropriate. For instance, if you have a road constructed to a geometric design suitable for speeds up to 80 kmph, a speed limit of 80 kmph may be inappropriate if the enforcement threshold is 100 kmph (20 kmph above the design speed for the road) as drivers are likely to be travelling faster than (the road) was designed for,” explained Clarke.

Better road engineering, awareness the key

So, if speed limit alone is not enough, one would ask, what are the other measures required to improve road safety?

“The best measure to curb the vehicular speed is to design the roads to operate at lower speeds. The design initiatives are better than regulatory measures. Speed calming measures such as speed tables, speed cushions, speed humps, rumble strips, interactive signs, reduced lane width, pedestrian crossing signals etc can be considered at the design stage to discourage speeding of vehicles,” said Shakir, who is among the consultants working on Dubai’s road designs.

Echoing Shakir’s views, Clarke also suggested road design as a key measure to curb speeding.

“Road engineering can influence the speed that drivers choose to drive, such as traffic-calming measures, using either horizontal or vertical deflections and signs. Road markings can also be used to reduce lane/road width to encourage lower speeds,” said Clarke.

However, both emphasised that education or creating greater awareness about dangers of speeding is critical in improving road safety.

“Educating drivers about the dangers of driving at speeds which either exceed the limit or the safe speed for the existing circumstances is critical,” said Clarke, adding that penalties should also reflect the gravity of the offence and act as a deterrent.

Shakir observed that the current penalty in the UAE for speeding is adequate and consistent with the most of the international practices, however, he pointed out that there is a significant room for public awareness in this area.

“Even if the penalty is increased by 10 times, it would not result in the improved road safety unless the public is fully aware of the implications of speeding,” he added.

Speed limits, speed-calming measures or any tool that aims at improving road safety are effective only when motorists play their part.

Data released recently by World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests that while those countries with urban road speeds of around 50 kmph or less indicate higher road safety levels, ironically, a country like Germany also has one of the lowest road fatalities at 4.7 per 100,000 people, despite having no speed restriction on its highways.

On the contrary, according to the WHO’s 2015 international road accident report, the Eastern Mediterranean region, which also includes Middle Eastern and the GCC countries, has the second highest road fatality rate at 19.9 persons per 100,000 population, despite having speed limits on highways and a net of speed-calming devices on the urban and rural roads.

The data suggests that speed limits or other road safety devices do not absolve drivers of the responsibility to drive according to the prevailing conditions.

It is critical for the motorists to take into consideration the traffic situation, road condition, weather and other elements while driving.