Energy minister Dipuo Peters has proposed to employ a team of expert consultants, at taxpayer expense, in order to conduct a study.
The question? Will reducing speed limits save hard-pressed South Africans money?
I didn’t follow tender procedures for this research contract, but I’ll venture an answer anyway: Sure it will. A little. And so will a law that rations our bread. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
“I am concerned about the impact on the ordinary farmer and the impact paraffin price increases have on the poorest of the poor,” Peters told the Times newspaper.
One might suspect that the ordinary farmer, despite his or her ordinariness, might be smart enough to consider the implications of R10 per litre of fuel, and modulate their own speed in the hope of improving fuel efficiency. One also suspects that the ordinary farmer, in their ordinary bakkie, doesn’t spend much of their ordinary day tearing down highways at extraordinary speeds.
And as for paraffin prices, here’s another piece of free advice for the minister: making South Africans drive more slowly will reduce neither the price of paraffin, nor the demand for it.
Now, one might argue that drivers are not sufficiently motivated to save their own money. At R10 a litre, the petrol price is a subject of discussion second only to the weather in pubs, shebeens and taxis across the country. But let’s assume it’s all talk, no action. If so, by what right should the government second-guess drivers’ own choices?
More importantly, why focus on the maximum speed limit in order to do so?
A glance at heavily-researched fuel economy test cycles suggests that few drivers spend a great deal of time driving faster than 100km/h. At best, a small improvement at the margins could be obtained by limiting maximum speeds.
The factors that most influence fuel economy are driving style – much of which is involuntary – and the efficiency of your vehicle.
Let’s consider driving style. It is well known that stop-start traffic, otherwise known as the urban cycle, is very heavy on fuel. Under test conditions, the Australian urban cycle, for example, consumes 80% more fuel per kilometre than the highway cycle.
This indicates that there is a far better way of improving the fuel consumption of the average South African driver than to reduce speed limits. Last night, I counted. Eleven speed bumps forced me to slow down to below 20 km/h in a five-minute trip home from a friend’s house, none of which could be justified by their location near schools or pedestrian crossings. I didn’t get close to the speed limit, though I did accelerate through the gears fourteen times (three times for intersections) instead of passing quietly by the darkened homes.
The vast majority of these fuel-guzzling annoyances could, at the stroke of a pen, be removed.
Let’s consider vehicle efficiency. New vehicles are far more efficient than old vehicles. However, most South Africans don’t buy new cars. Annual new car sales account for about 6,5 % of the five million cars on the road. At this rate, and assuming no greedy rich folks mess up the numbers by buying new cars more often, the entire fleet is replaced in 15 years.
Now the fuel economy of a typical new passenger vehicle has improved by 60 % since 1975, and by about 10 % in the last 15 years. Also, if you drive an average 15-year-old car, it is at least 10 % less efficient than it was when it was new. A new car would buy you an instant 20 % saving on fuel.
So, if fuel economy is the goal, the minister might want to start by looking at the price of new cars in South Africa. Customs duty on imported vehicles is 36 %. VAT is another 14 %, and a sliding scale for “ad valorem” customs duty takes the total for a R200 000 car to a whopping 70 %. Not to mention the green tax and licence fees.
No wonder South Africans can’t afford new cars more often than once in 15 years.
So, here’s the executive summary of my free report on the minister’s idea:
The potential gains from lowering the speed limit, not counting the profits to the treasury in the form of speed fine extortion, are minimal. Great improvements, however, can be had by slashing the rapacious taxation on new vehicles, and by removing speed bumps and other unnecessary impediments to speed on our roads. You’re welcome.