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Medical groups say NT Govt relying on flimsy evidence to expand no speed limit zone -

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MARK COLVIN: Medical groups say the Northern Territory Government is using flimsy evidence to justify its decision to remove speed limits on another section of the Stuart Highway.

The Territory Government's been experimenting with no speed limit zones north of Alice Springs.

Today it declared the trial a success and said there'd been no fatal crashes since it began 18 months ago.

But several medical groups say international research shows that removing speed limits does put lives at risk.

Sara Everingham reports from Darwin.

SARA EVERINGHAM: The Northern Territory Government has always said any moves on speed limits would be based on evidence, but medical groups are questioning whether the government is keeping its word.

Today the Northern Territory Government announced it would make permanent open speed limit zones on the Stuart Highway north of Alice Springs.

The Transport Minister Peter Chandler says a government survey of the 18-month trial shows it's been a success and the zone will be expanded for another 60 kilometres.

PETER CHANDLER: What we're finding now is after we've introduced the open speed limits, the vast majority of people are still driving between 130 and 140 kilometres an hour, albeit they have increased a few kilometres an hour.

We haven't had a death on that road and certainly we've had a few accidents but none have been attributed to speed.

SARA EVERINGHAM: The Australian Medical Association is one of several medical groups opposed to removing speed limits.

Dr Robert Parker is the president of the Northern Territory branch of the AMA. He says international research shows letting people drive as fast as they like puts lives at risk.

ROBERT PARKER: Well, again the evidence which is two well-controlled studies that I know of in Israel and Illinois seem to point to that if you increase the speed limits, more people are going to die, and it's not just on the roads that have the uncontrolled speed limits it's also on the roads that have controlled speed limits - people just don't seem to slow down when they come to those more restricted speed zones.

SARA EVERINGHAM: After winning the 2012 election, the Northern Territory Country Liberals commissioned at least two reports on open speed limits, which it still won't release, and Dr Parker from the AMA says the survey the Government has released today is not useful evidence.

ROBERT PARKER: Well given the small population of the NT you really can't do any reliable data trends under five to ten years.

It's just that year to year you're going to get changes. But with the small numbers and looking at the Territory population they don't really mean anything, you need to really look at data trends over time.

SARA EVERINGHAM: David Reed from the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons says there's no reason the speed limit should be removed.

DAVID REED: The college just feels that that saying that you can drive as fast as you like on this stretch of road sends the wrong message to drivers, you know, that speed doesn't matter so much when it is implicit in every single motor vehicle incident.

SARA EVERINGHAM: The Government is spending $7 million upgrading the roads where the open speed limit trial has been taking place.

That's attracted criticism from a former government minister Robyn Lambley who's now an independent in Alice Springs.

ROBYN LAMBLEY: The Government will have spent almost $7 million on upgrading this section of the Stuart Highway to enable people to drive like a bat out of hell.

This money should be going to areas of government responsibility that save lives rather than put lives at risk.

SARA EVERINGHAM: But the Minister Peter Chandler says the Government may consider removing limits on other sections of roads too.

PETER CHANDLER: We're not just going open slather, we're going to do this in a systematic way.

I personally think there are other sections of road we could go to open speed limits in the Northern Territory, sections of road south of Tennant Creek for instance - beautiful, open, good road that could be open speed limits.

Equally, there are sections of the Barkly Highway that I would also argue are good enough to be open speed limits today, so we're going to have a look at those roads and over time, we will look at other sections of road.

SARA EVERINGHAM: So even though experts say removing speed limits can lead to more injuries and more deaths you're prepared to consider removing the limits in other areas along the Stuart Highway.

PETER CHANDLER: Well look, I put my faith into Territorians - for decades in the Northern Territory people had open speed limits and the reality is that most people drive to their ability, drive to the conditions of the road and drive to the ability of their vehicles.

SARA EVERINGHAM: While the Government says it's putting faith in Territory drivers, David Reed from the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons says statistics show the Territory has a high road toll and does not need any measures that could make that worse.

DAVID REED: Territorians already have a three times chance of dying on the roads compared to other Australians and what Territorians need is a stronger road safety package, not to make it more lenient.

MARK COLVIN: Dr David Reed from the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons ending Sara Everingham's report.