When it comes to places with roads built for fast driving, Germany usually sits at the top of the list. In reality, much of the country’s freeway network contains posted speed limits. However, large chunks remain free of legally enforceable maximum limits. There is, however, one other location in the developed world with unrestricted speed limits on significant stretches of highway. Enter Australia’s Northern Territory. Here, the government introduced “open speed limits” on a stretch of the Stuart Highway between Alice Springs and Darwin in 2014. Or I should say, there WAS one other location. Sadly, Northern Australia announced plans to scrap open speed limits sometime before the end of the year. Thus, marking a sad ending for the 2+ year Australiabahn experiment.
The Australiabahn: A Tortured History of Speed Limits
Speed limits, or the lack thereof, feature a tortured history in the Northern Territory. Much of the country’s highway network contained no speed limits prior to 2006. The Labor Party introduced a statewide limit of 130 km/h (81 mph) thereafter. The Country Liberal Party, after winning control of the state’s government, fulfilled a campaign promise by gradually re-introducing open speed limits on the Stuart Highway beginning in 2014. Eventually, roughly 300 km (185 miles) of highway north of Alice Springs by July of this year became de-restricted.
Unfortunately for driving enthusiasts, the Labor Party won back control of the statehouse in elections held in August. Keeping their own campaign promise, mainly due to pressure from police associations and public health officials, they immediately announced that 130 km/h limits would be reinstated “as soon as possible”. Though the announcement did not include an official end date, it is believed signs will be up sometime around the end of the year.
Needless to say, as a car enthusiast myself, the news disappoints me. I’ve long wanted to rent a car and drive the stretch of highway. And there’s no way I’m going to be able to make it to Australia before the end of the year. It’s also disappointing, though, because open limits really haven’t had any noticeable effects on driver behavior. Traffic data indicated that the “85th percentile speed”, a standard engineering test used to set limits, ranged from 133 to 139 km/h within the unrestricted zone. Only a small percentage of drivers exceeded 150 km/h. Especially problematic – Australia’s reputation for overzealous speed enforcement. Reports indicate police often issue tickets for as little as 3 km/h over the limit. Methinks the police will use this as an excuse to extract cash from drivers that don’t meaningfully exceeding the new limits to begin with.
The moral of the story: if you’re planning a trip to Ayers Rock, or perhaps the rainforests of the Northern Territory coast, and also feel the need for speed, you’d best cash in those frequent flyer miles or credit card points for a plane ticket to Australia, and fast. Granted, even if speed isn’t your thing, a trip down the Stuart Highway through the Outback is a cool trip. I drove a short section in South Australia from Port Augusta to Coober Pedy in 2008, and enjoyed lots of scenery like this.
It’s like starring in your own personal “Mad Max” movie. Just beware the wombats, which can do a real number on your rental car if you hit one…