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Putting the brakes on speed limit enforcement

Recently, the Greater Chennai Traffic Police (GCTP) announced they were in the process of introducing several technological upgrades, including the installation of cameras with ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) and speed detection systems. Such automated systems are common across the world but have just started coming into the picture in India. 

The GCTP had said that soon the system would be integrated to generate e-challans which would reach the citizen directly. The media reported on this and cautioned Chennai’s citizens to be wary and stay within the speed limits lest they get a challan from the police.  A day later, the GCTP issued a clarification that the speed cameras were only for study purposes and as a cautionary mechanism and not meant to issue speeding tickets. GCTP also said that the clarification was being issued due to comments on social media and confusion among citizens. 

This backpedalling on enforcing the speed limit is unfortunate.

Speed thrills but kills

Nearly 70% of road fatalities in India in 2021 were ascribed to speeding; a 17.5% increase from the previous year. Among the states, Tamil Nadu and among the cities, Chennai tops the list for crashes (47,731 and 4,880) and fatalities (12,803 and 952 respectively) due to speeding. Those are excellent reasons for the police to clamp down on speeding. 

Considering that the police were only planning to do their job i.e enforce the law, the reaction is very revealing and interesting. We took a look at the responses on Twitter to the clarification and found that people didn’t know what the actual speed limits were; thought a ‘grace upper limit of +20kmph should be given’; believed that speeds should be at 60-70 kmph at a minimum because we are “not in the bullock cart age”; and that following the speed limit would increase travel time drastically. Let’s look at these in detail. 

What is the speed limit in Tamil Nadu?

While media reports and therefore Twitterverse were focussed on a speed limit of 40kmph in the city, there are actual different speed limits based on type of vehicle, time of day, and location.

As per the 2003 notification by Government of Tamil Nadu the speed limit is as follows:

Type of vehicle

Speed limit between 

7.00 am & 10.00 pm

Speed limit between

10.00 pm & 7.00 am


25 kmph

35 kmph

Heavy motor vehicles

35 kmph

40 kmph

Light motor vehicles & two-wheelers

40 kmph

50 kmph

In addition, the speed limit near hospitals and educational institutes is usually 20 kmph. 

The margin of error idea 

A common misconception seems to be that it's okay to be a little bit over the speed limit. So much so, one tweet suggested there should be a ‘grace’ amount of 20 kmph over the speed limit that would not invite a penalty! This is amusing because then the speed limit would increase by 20 kmph; and not so amusing because the impact of a crash at 60 kmph is very different to a crash at 40 kmph. Legally and logically, there can be no such thing as an allowance for speeding. If people were allowed to go up to 5 kmph over the limit, then someone would argue that he or she is just 3 kmph over the ‘grace’ amount. This cycle would keep repeating and there would be no meaning to a speed limit. 

Not in the bullock cart age

A number of people seem to believe that 40 kmph is a ridiculous limit and it should be at 60 to 80 kmph. This stems from the fact that for years we have not had serious enforcement of the speed limit and so people are used to driving at whatever speed they can. So if the traffic opens up, we zoom at 60 kmph or more and then after a few 100m we have to slow down and crawl in first or second gear due to traffic. We are talking of course about people in cars and two-wheelers. Other road users, in particular pedestrians and cyclists, who have equal rights on the road do not travel at those speeds obviously. 

In India, we fail to recognise that everyone has a right to travel (by whatever mode of transport) and that the travel should be safe. Internationally, research has shown that 30 kmph is the safe limit for urban transport i.e safe for everyone. As the speed increases beyond this point, the risk of death jumps disproportionately for pedestrians and cyclists. In short, the faster we drive our two-wheelers and cars, the more we put pedestrians and cyclists at risk. Another understanding of traffic research is that vehicles that move at different speeds (due to their capacity) should be separated physically. So motor vehicles should not be sharing the same space as cyclists and pedestrians. These slower modes should have their own safe space on the road which means pavements and cycle lanes. When this separation happens, traffic flow is smoother and vehicles can optimise travel time and fuel use. 

Waiting for speed signage 

In the present case of the GCTP going back on their effort to enforce the speed limit, perhaps a more planned approach would have worked. While the idea is good and required if we are to bring down fatalities, there is one major step that the GCTP must take before enforcing speed limits and that is to have adequate signage.

There are hardly any speed signs posted in the city. Everytime I pass a school or a hospital I check if there is signage on speed (and sound) but they are missing. Even on larger roads like Mount Road, Poonamallee High Road, Cathedral Road, and Sardar Patel Road (in central and south Chennai), I have not seen speed signs. Unless the speed limit is posted, how can citizens be hauled up for breaking the law? This is something the GCTP must look into at the earliest. 

Prioritising safety not speed

The United Nations has been calling consistently for urban speed limits to be kept at 30 kmph through its ‘Love30’ campaign, pointing out that higher speeds are very risky for vulnerable road users. As a country, we must decide if we want to prioritise the safety of the many or the privilege of the few (car and two-wheeler owners) to drive fast with no concern for the lives of others. The right answer would be the former and that would mean we actually demand for tougher speed limits in urban areas, and take the effort to learn and follow the road rules. 

The Union Minister for Road Transport, Nitin Gadkari recently announced that India will not be able to meet its road safety targets by 2030. If we continue to be speed demons, we will only add more deaths to our count. 

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