Trevor Collett | Aug 31, 2016

Despite what could only be described as a successful return to open speed limits in parts of the Northern Territory, the new NT government has declared the scheme will be scrapped as soon as possible.

Sweeping to power over the weekend, the Territory’s new Labor government stated during its campaign that it would abolish open speed limits should it win the election.

And the party has wasted no time in keeping that promise, stating that speed limits will soon be in place on all Northern Territory roads as a matter of urgency.

Labor first introduced a maximum 130km/h speed limit to some Territory roads in 2007. Since then, a rise in the number of fatalities and animal strikes was blamed on the subsequent increase to travel times, resulting in enforced night driving, and driver fatigue.

Then-Chief Minister Clare Martin quit her post as Territory leader just one month after the 130km/h limits were implemented.

The Country Liberal Party promised to reintroduce open speed limits as a ‘trial’ if elected in 2012, and kept that promise starting with a 200km section of the Stuart Highway between Alice Springs and Barrow Creek in 2014.

In its first year, just 11 collisions were recorded on the first trial stretch with zero fatalities. There was one injury considered to be serious, but outgoing Chief Minister Adam Giles said this incident was attributed to factors other than speed - including alcohol and seatbelt offences.

Around two months out from the 2016 election, the trial zone was extended to 335km north of Alice Springs.

Two fatalities were recorded within the extended zone around two weeks after it opened, when a driver from Tasmania lost control while towing a caravan northbound and collided head-on with a southbound motorhome.

The elderly couple was killed instantly as the vehicle and caravan burst into flames. The occupants of the motorhome were taken to hospital.

Again, NT Police declared that speed was not a factor.

The Australian Medical Association, the NT Police Association, the NT Labor Party, the AANT and the NT College Of Physicians all claimed that fatalities would leap under the open speed limit program.

“I suspect that most people will simply be killed. We may not even be dealing with severe trauma because people won’t even make it out of the car,” a spokeswoman for the NT College Of Physicians declared ahead of the trial.

Two fatalities, neither of which were speed-related, and one serious injury suggests that dire predictions ahead of the trial have failed to materialise.

Further, even with the July fatalities on the extended open speed limit stretch of the Stuart Highway, the Territory road toll to date in 2016 is lower than at the same time last year (28 verses 33).

Choosing to ignore the statistics from the trial, road-safety and medical groups have never relented in their push to have the open speed limits overturned.

The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons even stepped up its protest in recent months, using the NT election as a springboard to restate its opposition to open speed limits - citing research and statistics from other parts of Australia and the world.

In preparation for the scheme, parts of the Stuart Highway received an upgrade which included resurfacing and vastly improved signage.

Although given the opportunity to travel at much faster speeds, 85 percent of drivers have averaged between 133 and 139km/h while travelling in the derestricted zone - just 3-9km/h faster than the 130km/h speed limit in place before the trial started.

The Territory has benefited from an increase in business and tourism, with the open speed limits attracting carmakers from around the world; taking advantage of some of the NT’s extremes in weather and environment while testing.

As the open speed limit scheme ends, the Northern Territory will still maintain (for now) Australia’s highest speed limits with drivers restricted to 130km/h on parts of some highways including the Stuart, Victoria and Barkley.

MORE: Criminal History Common Among Repeat High-range Speeders - QUT
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