Speed ills

A large can of automotive worms were opened last week when Transport Secretary Philip Hammond floated the idea of raising the speed limit on the UK’s motorways from the current 70mph to 80mph. Part of the problem is that the reasons Mr Hammond gave for the potential change are somewhat dubious, but also because speed is such an emotive subject that everyone feels the need to chip in with their own opinion. Including me.

The main thrust of his argument was the following: “Now it is time to put Britain back in the fast lane of global economies and look again at the motorway speed limit which is nearly 50 years old, and out of date thanks to huge advances in safety and motoring technology.

“Increasing the motorway speed limit to 80mph would generate economic benefits of hundreds of millions of pounds through shorter journey times. So we will consult later this year on raising the limit to get Britain moving.”

Yes, the speed limit is nearly 50 years old, and technology has moved on substantially in that time. Don’t forget that the stopping distances on the back of the Highway Code haven’t changed in that time either: it says 73 metres to stop from 60mph on a dry road, but a Porsche 911 GT2 (admittedly an extreme road car) can do it just 30 meters.

But the cars are actually a small part of the equation. What has barely changed in those 50 years are driving standards: in fact there’s a case for arguing they are actually worse. Our modern cocoons are so insulated from the outside we drive with much less caution and respect, and trust that our airbags and safety cells will protect us if something goes wrong. Which is true, but that doesn’t mean we should take chances any more than if we’re behind the wheel of a death trap.

The argument about journey times is also rather flawed. You don’t even need a GCSE in Maths to work out that a 10mph increase in speed will save you the grand total of seven minutes per hour. If that’s enough to generate millions of pounds worth of savings, lets look at daft traffic light phasing and congestion busting first.

And don’t forget that your higher speed will cost you more in fuel and emissions, as well as requiring you to fill up more often (can you refuel in less than seven minutes?). The same environmental factors have been used to argue that the limit should stay as it is for years.

The final issue is enforcement. Motorways are largely free from speed cameras apart from the SPECS average speed system, which does good work when used properly. Most of the time if you get caught speeding on a motorway it’s because a patrol unit has caught you, and this is a good thing: a real police officer can use their judgement, unlike a machine, and they are smart enough to let a car driven in a proper, considerate fashion off the hook if it’s over the limit, whereas someone speeding without any concern will get rightly hammered.

Very little has been said about how a higher speed limit will be enforced – what price a national network of unthinking speed cameras to penalise us all? Be careful what you wish for.

By Matt Joy

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