Beware the variable speed limit trap

By: Sarah Marinovic*

LEGAL OPINION: Being caught unawares when the road authorities alter posted speed limits can lead to loss of licence

Beware the variable speed limit trap
Drivers can be travelling at relatively low speeds completely unaware that they’re breaking the law


Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of drivers being caught out by variable speed limit signs. Anyone who’s driven on a New South Wales toll road will be familiar with them. They’re the electronic signs that allow road authorities to change the speed limit in response to changing road conditions, e.g. for roadworks or other hazards such as a breakdown.

The problem for drivers caught by these signs in NSW is that it’s very easy to find yourself so far over the speed limit that you trigger an automatic licence suspension. The worst part is that most drivers don’t realise a loss of licence is even a possibility until the suspension letter arrives in the mail.

I hope that making drivers aware of the risk will help them avoid the same trap.

The first thing to understand is how a speeding fine can lead to automatic licence suspension. In NSW, any speeding offence in excess of 30km/h over the speed limit carries an automatic suspension. It’s a three-month suspension for 30–45km/h over the speed limit, and six months for being 45km/h-plus over the limit.

Normally when a driver is caught speeding by more than 30km/h over the limit, they knew they were doing the wrong thing (at least that’s my experience speaking to people in this situation).


But where variable speed limits are involved, I often see drivers being caught out travelling at relatively low speeds completely unaware that they’re breaking the law. Take for example a road that normally has an 80km/h speed limit. When that limit is dropped to 40km/h the person only needs to be travelling over 70km/h to be more than 30km/h above the speed limit. So, if you don’t notice the changed speed limit you could be sitting 5–10km/h under what you thought the limit was and still be more than 30km/h over.

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Frustratingly, the penalty notice doesn’t include any information about the automatic suspension. Even worse, since the suspension is dealt with administratively by the Roads and Maritime Services, a lot of police officers aren’t aware of it either and will mistakenly tell drivers that there’s no suspension for the offence.

So, quite often, drivers will read the penalty notice, see the fine amount and demerit points, check that the points won’t put them over the limit and then pay the fine thinking their licence is safe. Then a few months later they receive a notice of suspension.

Legal options

There are two main things I hope people will remember from this article.

Firstly, be extra vigilant whenever you are on a variable speed limit road. It’s so easy to fall into the habit of travelling the usual speed and not realise that the limit has been lowered. I also know how difficult it can be to stick at 40km/h on a motorway when most other drivers are ignoring the reduced speed limit. Remembering that there’s a licence suspension at stake helps.

Secondly, if you do get caught, this is one of those situations where it pays to speak with a lawyer as soon as you receive the penalty notice. In NSW there are a couple of options to dispute the suspension notice in court. One option is to ‘court elect’ the ticket and ask the magistrate to decide the entire penalty (i.e. should there be a fine, should you lose your licence, how much should the fine and licence disqualification be, etc?).

The other option is to pay the fine and then just appeal against the suspension. There are benefits and risks for each option, and the right approach depends on your individual circumstances. This is why it’s important to seek help straight away so the lawyer can help you choose the best option and avoid you accidentally taking the wrong path.

As always, my team at Ainsley Law are happy to have a chat if you need help.


*SARAH MARINOVIC is a principal solicitor at Ainsley Law – a firm dedicated to traffic and heavy vehicle law. She has focused on this expertise for over a decade, having started her career prosecuting for the RMS, and then using that experience as a defence lawyer helping professional drivers and truck owners. For more information email Sarah at or phone 0416 224 601.

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