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Vol. XXXIII No. 6, July 1-15, 2023

Chennai Traffic Police make a U-turn on new speed limits

-- by A Special Correspondent

“I felt rather silly for a second there,” confesses Siddharth, waving towards his expensive new sports car. The bonnet catches the sun rather prettily – sophisticated, shiny and sleek, it can accelerate to high speeds in the blink of an eye. Siddharth was temporarily thrown for a toss earlier in June, when the Greater Chennai Traffic Police (GCTP) announced that city speed limits would be revised to 40kmph in the daytime and 50kmph at night. Newly installed speed radars with ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) cameras at key spots such as Anna Arivalayam junction, Dr Gurusamy Bridge, Pulla Avenue, Ration Shop Junction in Maduravoyal, Parry’s Corner, Injambakkam, and Spencer Plaza would help identify violators. In all, the installation is reported to have cost Rs. 54.33 lakhs, but the change was met with great public indignation, leaving vehicle owners an especially disgruntled lot. A mere two days later, another announcement followed, assuring the public that the new equipment would not enforce the proposed speed limits but only serve to encourage safe driving. The GCTP’s official social media handle released the following statement – “Owing to criticism from certain quarters in social media and some confusions alleging that Chennai police have proposed to generate challans for speed violations, it is clarified that police installed six speed display boards wherein the speed of every vehicle crossing that board will be displayed and the road user will be able to know if they have crossed the permitted speed limit. These boards are for cautionary purposes and not equipped to generate challans.” The data captured by the ANPR cameras, it was added, would be used to feed a civic study on permissible speed limits, enabling the city traffic authorities to explore “different speed limits in different roads at different times.”

Siddharth is heaving a sigh of relief, but the plain fact remains that reducing speed limits is considered good practice in urban planning by civic experts the world over. For one, it directly reduces the frequency of road accidents and drastically reduces fatalities — an outcome that Chennai should welcome, with its poor track record on road safety. Increased vigilance has already  helped bring down the number of deaths from road accidents by 20 per cent compared to 2021. A revision  of speed limits is quite in alignment with safety goals. In fact, the World Bank endorses a 30kmph speed limit,  as evidenced by this excerpt from a 2021 article published on its blog – “Many cities in Europe are already moving  toward slower speeds, with considerable gains in terms of road safety and quality of life. Brussels and Paris have introduced 30km/h limits in order to improve air quality and reduce noise pollution and traffic

By the end of 2021, the Dublin City Council’s Transportation Department intends to do the same. The Spanish government is also introducing new traffic regulations, lowering speed limits, and increasing fines. Luxembourg has extended its 30km/h zones to all built-up areas, as have Oslo and Helsinki, where not a single pedestrian or cyclist was killed in a road crash last year.”

Secondly, reduced speed limits also help cut down on pollution and fuel consumption – it is a matter of general acceptance that higher speeds burn more fuel while lower speeds economize. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, lower speeds make roads accessible and safe for all citizens, not just privileged owners of automobiles. It is unlikely that the proposed revisions faced criticism from those who regularly walk on the roads or cross busy junctions – the city’s pedestrians, mass commuters and cyclists have arguably been pushed out of the roads by motorized vehicles. Reduced speed limits will almost certainly make commutes longer and put additional pressure on congestion at peak hours, making it a little more inconvenient to own and ply private vehicles — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  In the long run, it will help build equitable, accessible public paths.

It is arguable though that the change was introduced without much thought to the transition
involved. There is ample scope to mould commuting behaviour to the common good, but that necessitates the provision of a dependable solution — well-connected, safe, and timely mass transport systems. With city roads in their current state of disrepair from civic works and the rains, it should have been anticipated that the public would not react kindly to a further burden of increased congestion and travel time. It would have been prudent to establish the alternative before pushing for greater restrictions. As it is, the touted plan of establishing variable speed limits in different parts of the city is a good start, and one hopes the new speed radars would be useful in swiftly enforcing such plans. Siddharth and his ilk may grumble anew, but it is hard to muster sympathy for them. They’re welcome to use the roads responsibly right alongside the rest of us.

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