Speed limit row highlights bureaucratic malaise

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 September, 2009, 12:00am

When in doubt, do nothing. Whether police or civilian, this attitude seems to be increasingly prevalent among our bureaucrats. The latest example has to do with the police refusal to enforce unclear speeding laws on certain roads and the stubborn inaction of the Transport Department to clear up the confusion. It was only after a media outcry that the relevant departments, including lawyers from the Justice Department, met last week and decided police must start enforcing speed limits again.

This was the right decision, though officials should have made it much earlier. Irresponsible drivers effectively enjoyed a free ride - and possibly endangered the lives of other people - for almost a year on 55 sections of road across the city. We have no way of knowing whether there have been accidents or injuries that could be attributed to the lack of enforcement over speed limits on those roads.

The problem initially stemmed from confusion over whether the commissioner for transport had the authority to revise speed limits using the government gazette rather than seeking Legislative Council approval. Originally, under a notice called Cap 374M, 55 sections of road across the city had a speed limit of 70km/h. The Road Traffic Ordinance, however, allows the commissioner to vary speed limits by gazetting them. Under government gazette, police enforced a 50km/h limit on most of those 55 sections. Last October, government lawyers warned that allowing a case to reach court would open 'a can of worms' and quietly advised transport officials to clear up any legal confusion. Since then, police have ignored speeding motorists on those stretches of road.

The Transport Department insists that the commissioner has full authority to gazette speed limit changes. That is reasonable and can, if necessary, be argued in court. If there is a legal challenge, a 'can of worms' should be opened if that is what it takes to clarify the law. But, if the Transport Department was confident in its stance, it should have worked with police to ensure enforcement of speed limits. Instead it stood by for almost a year while police did nothing.