Suburban streets could be slowed down to 40km/h speed limits, with the ACT government confident most Canberrans will welcome the change.
A new active travel plan, released on Thursday, revealed the government would consult on the speed limit change as part of a new broader road safety action plan in 2023.
But safety advocates have said the speed limits should be even slower, with a 30km/h maximum better able to make streets safer for everyone to use, regardless of their age, ability or mode of transport.
Transport Minister Chris Steel said more people had been walking and cycling in their suburbs since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant it was important to consider whether speed limits should be lowered.
"I think there is going to be a strong willingness from the community to contemplate reducing speed limits down to 40km/h," Mr Steel said.
The lower speed limits would apply to access streets, which already have low levels of traffic and connect to collector roads. Mr Steel said the government was not necessarily contemplating lower speed limits on suburban collector roads.
Minor collector roads have speed limits of 50km/h while major collector roads are generally speed limited at 60km/h.
Mr Steel said many of Canberra's streets were originally designed in a way that allowed children to play on them, but fast traffic made this unsafe.
"I think many families would be welcoming of a lower speed limit, particularly when many cars are going under 40 in those local access streets," he said.
"It's a really important part of the plan, slowing down traffic does support more walking and cycling in our community."
But Living Streets Canberra's Gillian King said streets without footpaths on both sides and road crossings that have speed limits of more than 30km/h were not considered safe under the policies that guided ACT transport decision making.
"If you do a plot of the risk of death or serious injury versus speed of collision with a vehicle, it dramatically increases above 32km/h. At 30km/h if you're struck, your risk of death is about 10 per cent. At 40 kilometres an hour it's 30 per cent. At 50km/h it's 80 per cent," Ms King said.
A global movement to reduce residential streets speed limits to 30km/h has gained traction in recent years, with the United Nations' general assembly in 2020 endorsing a resolution that backed "the strengthening of law enforcement to prevent speeding and mandate a maximum road travel speed of 30 km/h in areas where vulnerable road users and vehicles mix in a frequent and planned manner, except where strong evidence exists that higher speeds are safe".
Paul Tranter, an honorary associate professor at UNSW Canberra who has written about speeding and children's safety, said adopting a 30km/h speed limit was a chance for Canberra to lead on road safety.
Professor Tranter said the shift would be cheap and have a large impact on reducing harmful emissions, cutting the number of required car journeys and making scant difference to motorists' journey times.
"We're looking at seconds rather than minutes for the average journey. Most of the driving we're doing is not on the minor residential streets. Even on the minor residential streets we don't drive at 50km/h for very long," he said.
"If you can make the streets safer, that means more parents are going to allow their children to walk and cycle to school, and that's going to save time for parents."
Canberra's clear road hierarchy - which meant motorists spent little time on access streets before making most of their journeys on collector and arterial roads - made the city perfect to adopt 30km/h speed limits in residential areas, he said.
Professor Tranter said a shift from 50km/h to 40km/h in the ACT would not reflect international best practice, which recognised 30km/h limits as the safe option.
"The lower speed limits are the best way to improve pedestrian safety. It's simple, cheap and there's really no argument against it," he said.
Ms King said she hoped the ACT government's consultation process would be an opportunity for the public to be presented with the evidence that backed an even lower speed limit as part of a road safety agenda.
"When they're talking about the safety thing, they've framed it to get people to agree to 40km/h rather than what's actually safe. I think there needs to be some public education and discussion about what's actually safe, not what the ACT government is proposing. They're not necessarily the same thing," she said.
Living Streets Canberra is a community advocacy group which has called on the ACT government to better invest in initiatives to make it easier to make trips around Canberra on foot.
Ms King also said reduced speed limits would reduce the need for crossing and path infrastructure on many roads, boosting active travel participation and saving the government money. A 30km/h speed limit would also make little difference to motorists' travel times, she said.
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The ACT government's plan for lower speed limits would form just one part of an ambitious program of infrastructure improvements that the government believes will lay the foundation to encourage more Canberrans to take up walking and cycling for their commute and leave their cars at home.
The active travel plan consultation draft outlines 12 key actions the government intends to take - including updating infrastructure requirements that would give Canberra streets a more European feel - to reduce the number of car trips made in the ACT.
Mr Steel has previously pointed to research which the government said showed the introduction of 40km/h zones significantly reduces the risk of death for vulnerable road users.
"The risk of death for a vulnerable road user drops from approximately 80 per cent when a vehicle is travelling at 50km/h to 50 per cent when the vehicle is travelling at 40km/h," Mr Steel said in relation to the introduction of lower speed limits on Northbourne Avenue last year.
The ACT implemented a standard 50km/h speed limit for residential streets in July 2003, lowering the limit from 60km/h. The change followed a trial which found 77 per cent of people who lived in streets where the lower speed limit was tested wanted it to remain.
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Jasper Lindell joined the Times in 2018. He is a Legislative Assembly reporter, covering ACT politics and government. He also writes about development, heritage, local history, literature and the arts, as well as contributing to the Times' Panorama magazine on Saturdays. He was previously a Sunday Canberra Times reporter.
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