The Aussies and their speed limits

Posted: Aug 27, 2001 12:00 AM
Forget Crocodile Dundee. Forget your images of he-men of the outback -- the descendants of Britain's petty criminal exports as they brave snakes, spiders and Tasmanian devils to provide TV viewers with a good shot of man-eating animals. Forget the beer ads featuring wild and crazy cutups surfing 30-foot waves. The real passion for modern Australia is safety. The speed limit on many urban highways and rural roads is 100 km/h -- that's about 55 mph, mate. A speed limit that makes your American grandmother yawn. Melbourne has a campaign urging motorists to drive 5 km/h slower to save lives -- or maybe it's supposed to make you feel as if you have lived two lifetimes just during your commute. Some new cars here are equipped with beepers that warn drivers when their speed exceeds 110 km/h -- ooooooh, about 67 mph -- or, if so equipped, when the driver is over the speed limit in any area. This is possible because urban roads have become the home of the Aussie big brother, the camera, which gauges the speed of passing cars and issues speeding tickets. Trevor, 40, a teacher in Adelaide, groused that the camera ticket system is just another way of squeezing taxpayers for more revenue. He has received three tickets in the last six years, his last offense was for driving at 72 mph. Ask Aussies how they feel about their speed limits, and many proudly credit the system with saving lives. They like life in the slow lane -- and all lanes here are slow, (except in the Northern Territory where there is no speed limit). Others confess that it is not politically correct to complain. Those of you who hate people who chat on their cell phones and drive would love Australia. It is illegal to talk on your hand-held cell phone and drive. This is probably a good thing, because the beeper that goes off when you exceed a snail's speed limit probably would make conversation difficult. For safety's sake, citizens support Australia's stringent gun-control laws that were enacted after a man killed 35 people in Port Arthur in 1996. The law forbids ownership of semiautomatic rifles and shotguns, the Australian government bought back more than 600,000 firearms from their owners. Ask people you meet about the gun laws, and even social conservatives respond: "I don't know why anyone has to own a gun." They say repeat that phrase word for word. They trust that the laws are keeping them safer and will point out that they hail from a country with a constitution that does not recognize a right to bear arms. The alcohol limit for drivers has been reduced to .05. (In California it's .08.) Thus, the state is managing to turn into criminals people who have a drink or two then drive, or those who bought semiautomatic rifles legally then failed to trade them in. At the same time, political leaders are calling for a law to allow doctors to prescribe heroin, and states have legalized one of the world's most dangerous professions: prostitution. The laws get tougher on the law-abiding -- slow down, don't drink and drive, don't smoke -- and easier on the law-breaking -- with Sydney's heroin-injecting center and legalized prostitution -- as they try to make high-risk behavior safer through "harm minimization." And if the good people of Australia have noticed, they don't say much.