Speed limits arrive in Australia's land of the lightning trip

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The Independent Online

To most Australians, the Northern Territory means wide open spaces - and the freedom to drive through them as fast as you wish.

The Territory - the size of France, Italy and Spain combined, but home to just 200,000 people - is one of the few places in the world without speed limits. Territorians boast about how quickly they can cover the 1,500km (930 miles) between Alice Springs and Darwin.

Those lightning trips are about to become a memory, however, with the Labour government poised to introduce speed limits in an attempt to cut road deaths. A report last month found that three times more people died on Territory roads than elsewhere in Australia.

Territorians have denounced the plans - which include tougher fines, a crackdown on drink-driving, and the introduction of speed cameras - as an affront to their free and easy lifestyle.

Nigel Scullion, an opposition politician, attacked the proposals as "another way to raise taxes". He suggested that the Territory was merely copying Australia's southern states, telling ABC radio: "This southern-centric mentality ... is going to be a fundamental failure, and it's going to take for ever to get to places." Mr Scullion said that his Country Liberal Party would reverse the changes if it came to power.

Clare Martin, the Chief Minister, acknowledged that they would be unpopular. "We've taken the tough decisions needed to reduce the numbers killed," she said. "I can't accept a situation where one Territorian dies every week on our roads."

Tourists who visit the Territory to see attractions such as Uluru, the vast red monolith, are often taken aback by the speed with which traffic - including triple-truck "road trains" - hurtles along its highways.

From 1 January, a 130kph (80mph) speed limit will be imposed on four major highways, while the rest will have a limit of 110kph, which is the rule on most Australian roads.

In 1994 the Territory staged a road race, called the Cannonball Run, on the Stuart Highway. It ended in disaster with four people killed. To many people, it summed up Territorians' irresponsible attitude towards driving. Mr Scullion's attempts to revive the race have been thwarted

Last month's report, conducted by a road safety task force, confirmed that those attitudes are widespread. Territory residents are flagrant drink-drivers; many do not bother wearing seatbelts, and they enjoy jumping red lights. During one 24-hour period, 2,600 cars ran red lights at 11 intersections in Darwin.

Under the new regime, fines, which are the lowest in the country, are to be doubled and a system of deducting points from drivers' licences will be introduced. The report found that one driver still had a licence despite being fined for speeding 47 times in three years.

One Territorian, Gwyn Delaney, told the ABC that the lack of speed limits was part of the lifestyle: "We're not suffocated by regulation and that's how we like it."