Crude, dangerous and bad for the environment: speed humps must go
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Crude, dangerous and bad for the environment: speed humps must go

They seem like an eternal obstacle, but speed bumps have only been around since the 1970s. And in some parts of the world they may be about to go again. Research from the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence suggests that speed bumps are environmentally unfriendly. When drivers speed up after having to slow down for a bump, they contribute more to air pollution than they would if they were driving smoothly.

While speed bumps save lives by slowing cars down on dangerous patches of the road, air pollution is deadly too. The road toll in Australia was around 1300 last year whereas air pollution contributes to over 3000 deaths each year, according to an Environment Justice Australia report. The idea of scrapping them has been floated in the UK, as it should here.

Speed bumps slow down emergency vehicles and obstruct large ones, they distract drivers who focus more on slowing down than on pedestrians around them, and they're hazardous to cyclists.

Speed bumps slow down emergency vehicles and obstruct large ones, they distract drivers who focus more on slowing down than on pedestrians around them, and they're hazardous to cyclists.Credit:Elesa Lee ELZ

I learned to drive in Melbourne's outer suburbs where the roads were narrow and often unpaved, and there were many blind corners. I dreaded the heavy jolt of speed bumps and the impossible corners of chicanes. They felt terrible, and they were only a temporary solution. These devices definitely slow down traffic, but often the traffic only needs slowing down because the roads had been inadequately designed and maintained.

The unpleasantness and the environmental degradation aren't the only reasons to reassess their purpose. Safety is another. Speed bumps slow down emergency vehicles and obstruct large ones, they distract drivers who focus more on slowing down than on pedestrians around them, and they're hazardous to cyclists. When speed cushions were installed on a street in Hawthorn East earlier this year, some motorists began driving on the wrong side of the road to avoid them, making the situation even more dangerous than before.

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Research from the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence suggests that speed bumps are environmentally unfriendly.

Research from the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence suggests that speed bumps are environmentally unfriendly. Credit:Graham Tidy GGT

Speed bumps could still be an appropriate tool in some cases, but there are many ways to make roads safer. Turning streets into cul-de-sacs has been effective way to reduce speeding on residential streets in Europe. Speed humps that stop people from speeding up (or "sleeping policemen") could be an alternative to slowing them down. Speed cameras and police also clearly have a role to play in monitoring speed.

More than anything, safer road design that allows drivers to see potential hazards is key. We could have more pedestrian crossings, better lighting, and footpaths (where I lived, we had to walk on the side of the road). If these basic things are lacking, it doesn't matter if there's a speed bump – the road could be safer.

Reducing pollution involves much more than getting rid of speed bumps – driving less and using more energy-efficient vehicles is important. But banishing the speed bump can also be a step towards detoxifying our environment, and possibly even making our roads safer.

Erin Stewart is a Fairfax Media columnist.

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