Dangerous 60km school zones putting children’s lives at risk

60km sign on the side of road in school zone.

Sue Hewitt

Posted October 08, 2019

A damning new RACV investigation reveals Victoria’s 60kmh school zones.

We all know the speed limit in Victorian school zones is 40kmh, right? Well, not always. For a significant number of schools, the speed limit is 20kmh higher at 60kmh. Experts say if a pedestrian is hit at 60kmh they have virtually no chance of surviving.

There are 148 schools with a 60kmh limit. All are on high-speed roads where the normal speed limit is 80kmh or above.

Contrary to what you might think, they’re not all in regional areas. For example, there are two primary schools on Sunshine Avenue in Melbourne’s western suburbs that have 60kmh school zone limits, one in Sunshine and the other a few kilometres away in Keilor Downs.

School principals, parents and RACV road safety experts want the 60kmh limits lowered to a uniform 40kmh across all Victorian school zones.

RACV’s senior manager transport, planning and infrastructure, Peter Kartsidimas, says the different school zone speed limits send a mixed message to motorists about safety around schools.

Peter says there is a practical solution to dropping the school zone speed limit to 40kmh on high-speed roads. “With proper signage to pre-warn drivers and by staggering the speed reduction from 80kmh to 60kmh to 40kmh, there is no reason motorists cannot reduce their speed safely,” he says.

He says this approach is used to warn drivers about approaching road works on high-speed roads, where signs reduce the speed limit in staggered intervals from 100 to 80 to 60 then 40kmh.

He says the cost of installing a few extra fixed signs and using existing variable speed signs to gradually reduce speeds to 40kmh around school zones would be minimal.

Reducing the speed limit in school zones to a uniform 40kmh will save lives and  reduce serious injuries, say associate professor Warwick Teague, the Royal Children’s Hospital’s director of trauma services. 

He says when a child is hit by a car moving at speed they a likely to suffer three points of impact and each “moment of that force is devastating”.

“Typically, they are struck from the side with devastating force, destroying the entire side of their body including the liver and chest. They are instantly flung up onto the bonnet and hit their head, then thrown forward and strike the ground with their head.

“If they survive their lives will be defined every hour, every day by that crash.”

Research shows that the higher a car’s speed, the more likely a pedestrian will die if they’re hit, says Dr Michelle Hobday, a research fellow at C-Marc, the Curtin Monash Accident Research Centre.

When a pedestrian is hit by a car travelling at 60kmh there’s more than a 95 per cent probability they will die, while at 40kmh there is a 40 per cent probability of death, she says. This drops to around 10 per cent when a vehicle is travelling at 30kmh.

Primary-school children are difficult to see, Michelle says, especially if they emerge from between parked cars, and they don’t have the cognitive skills to judge a vehicle’s speed.

Anne-Maree Kliman, president of the Victorian Principals Association, agrees. She says children are not only unpredictable, they don’t have the maturity to understand road rules or judge how fast cars are travelling.

“They have a see-go mentality. I see mum, I go to her, I don’t look both ways, I just cross [the road],” she says.

“We must have consistency across the state, so everyone knows that every school zone is 40kmh. We already protect the safety of emergency vehicles and construction workers [with a 40kmh limit], why not our children?”

Adolescents are also at risk, according to Sue Bell, president of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals. “Teenagers travel in groups, they’re distracted, self-absorbed, giggling and talking and aren’t always aware of what is going on around them,” she says.

“We need that extra edge of safety around schools and consistent 40kmh limits would do that.”

The executive officer of Parents Victoria, Gail McHardy, says her organisation fought to have the 40kmh school zones introduced decades ago and supports the introduction of state-wide uniform limits. 

Harold Scruby of the Pedestrian Council of Australia says Victoria’s dual school-zone speed limits are confusing for drivers and setting a 60kmh limit in some school zones is “outrageous”.

A VicRoads spokesman acknowledges children are “some of our most vulnerable road users” but says each school is assessed individually in consultation with other authorities to set “safe speed limits”.

“School speed limits are assessed on a case-by-case basis and take many factors into account including crash history, traffic volumes, types of road users, the road environment and how the school is accessed,” he says.