If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Motorway Speed Limits

Another day, another poll from the IAM. This time it's on whether to increase the speed limits on motorways. No need to be a member; they are interested in as many opinions as possible.

The 70 limit was introduced in 1965, in response to a spate of serious accidents on the motorway network. The accidents that triggered the move were in foggy conditions, and it is hard to imagine how a theoretical speed limit would stop people who were happy to drive at that sort of speed in thick fog, but then logic has never been the strong suit of those in charge of the transport network. Of course, the limit had to be introduced for all roads, otherwise you would have the ridiculous situation of the motorways having a lower limit than a country lane. It's amazing to think it now, but before 1965 you could drive at any speed you wanted as long as you were out of a built-up area. This situation still obtains in the Isle of Man, of course. The killjoys haven't got round to that yet.

Another reason for the introduction of the limit was that AC Cars were caught testing the prototype for the Cobra at 196 mph on the M1. This was obviously not acceptable to Transport Minister Barbara Castle (a non-driver), an early example of that curious state of mind amongst our elders and betters that if it is fun, it must be stopped. Can you imagine the Italian police round Maranello stopping all the Ferrari test drivers and asking them to be a bit more careful? Round there, the locals come out and line the streets and would be disappointed if the drivers didn't put on a bit of a show. The thought of hamstringing an iconic Italian manufacturer by petty 'safety' regulation wouldn't enter their heads.

The 70 limit was introduced with very little debate. As most family cars could barely exceed that speed in 1965, I suppose it seemed a reasonable measure. Is it still reasonable? The engines, brakes, handling and passive safety of even the most humble hatchback far exceed the technology available 45 years ago. There aren't many cars that can't cruise comfortably at 90 mph, and in fact from the motorway driving that I do it seems that the default speed for most people is around 80 in clear conditions. I think there is a good case for increasing the limit to 80 or even 90 mph. In fact, there is a good case for removing the limit altogether, and applying limits according to need - see my post on speed limits in Germany. I wrote:

I have a theory. In Germany, on much of the autobahn network, there are no speed limits. People are trusted to make their own decisions about how fast they go. When there is a reason to do so, speed limits are imposed, in a sensible way, and removed as soon as they are not needed. Because of this, German drivers seem far more prepared to observe speed limits than British drivers are. They recognise that they are there for everyone's benefit, and used in specific circumstances, rather than as a blanket control measure designed to take the fun out of motoring and raise some cash from the motorist at the same time. I didn't see a single speed camera or traffic patrol car in Germany, and yet the compliance with speed limits was far higher than in our camera-infested country.
But of course that will never happen - at least, not under any current version of Labour (red, blue or yellow) that has the chance of being in government in the foreseeable future.

Would increasing or even removing the current limit increase pollution through the slightly higher fuel consumption of vehicles travelling 10 mph faster? Probably not: the improvement in traffic flow would probably cancel that out. Would it increase the number or severity of accidents? I doubt it. Motorway accidents happen generally because of poor driving habits in general and poor lane discipline in particular, and seem to me to bear little relation to speed.

Go and tell the IAM what you think, or leave a comment here. Or both, of course.

UPDATE: as before, the IAM site isn't letting me access the poll page. Keep trying.


  1. I went to Austria recently via Germany, and managed 165mph on a strectch of motorway getting to Munich. Needless to say, it concentrates the mind wonderfully, and gets your hands wet! Beware of the dozy dutch not using their mirrors though...

    I also overtook a police car at about 130mph (much easier speed to manage) and it felt a bit strange.

    Another experience I had also was after a speed limit zone, where the car in front stayed stuck on the fast lane, when the other lane was free. Lo and behold, a police car came up the inside and stopped him. Amazing stuff! :)

    The thing is that motorways are the safest roads there is, and driving to a number whatever the circumstances means you're not using your brain and are lulled in a false sense of security. At least, when you go fast, you are a lot more alert to what is happening around you.

    I would love to see a system of driving license based on the pilot license: you get a basic license that allows you to drive with certain restrictions, but can take further training to reduce those restrictions.

  2. All the motorways already have the capacity for variable speed limits during advers conditions. They could easily scrap the max limit and just impose a limit when the conditions are a bit crap.

    Not being a biker, the fastest I have ever been is 120mph in a Fiesta XR2 whose engine I had rebuilt.

  3. When I went through Germany I admit I was a little apprehensive, imagining a lunatic free-for-all. In fact, I felt very safe as the traffic seemed far more controlled than in the UK - controlled by sensible driving, not artificial limits. As I said in the other post, the limits were obviously there for a reason, and - hey - people obeyed them.

    I like the idea of graded licences, although I think it would be too expensive to administer. Safer, perhaps, but it wouldn't raise any revenue (unlike punitive enforcement of unrealistic limits), so it will never happen.

  4. The issue with raising the limit to 80mph, is that with the 10% allowance the de facto limit would become as good as 90mph. I would suggest raising it to 75mph, which would put the official point at which you can be fined at around 82/3mph, which is where it is roughly now anyway, but make it official, and not subject to the whims of a passing police officer.

    While I like the idea of no limit, I can't help thinking that there are plenty of mad/bad drivers already in the UK - giving them a free rein to go as fast as they like is not something I'd be happy doing.

  5. The mad already drive as fast as they want in their stolen uninsured cars. Putting the limit up to 90 would just mean the rest of us wouldn't routinely break the law when we went out. Motorways could have no limit apart from at junctions - like in parts of Germany. Seems to work well

  6. My personal opinion is that 80mph is a safe limit in good visibility.

    However, far more middle/overtaking-lane-hoggers should be prosecuted. They're more of a menace than the majority of those driving at 80 - 85 mph.

    That would also instantaneously increase motorway capacity by about 20% without spending a 1p.

  7. Germany is full of well hidden "blitzers", and some of the more fiendish models detect whether you are tail gating too. One weekend Mrs N got blitzed twice (driving me around obviously puts her pulse rate up...), however for modest indiscretions it's only a fine an no points.

    We managed 100mph+ last summer on the A66 near Frankfurt 2 up on the GS and I wasn't told off - no drama.

    There are some fairly horrendous high speed accidents in Germany, that being the reason that ADAC pioneered the use of the air ambulances - the St. Christophers.

  8. @ Bucko - you're right about the variable limits, and I think they prove my point. In my experience they are generally well-observed, and that's because they aren't blanket limits but are there for a demonstrable reason, hence people are more likely to heed them. 120 on your own engine is a source of pride, I think.

    @ Jim - I'm not sure I follow your reasoning there. If people drive at 80 when the limit is 70, what's to say they won't observe the higher limit more (more realistic = better compliance) and no-one may go much faster? The '10% allowance' you talk about isn't what the Police use (that's often given as speed + 10% + 2), and the traditional speedo error of 10% is already factored in. If people 'speed' by doing 80 in a 70 limit, they are in fact only doing ~72 in old money. I take your point about the mad/bad drivers, although the real bad driving I see usually happens at much lower speeds.

    @ Stabledoor - good point.

    @ Joe - see monoi's comment at the top. Cops actually pulling someone for bad lane discipline! Whatever next? Agreed that this one change would make a huge difference to congestion. You can often drive at 70 in the left lane, while the middle lane is empty and the right lane is full of cars doing 65 - 2/3 of the motorway wasted, and no-one getting anywhere faster.

    @ Nikos - 100 with Mrs Nikos on board - I salute you, Sir. Fair point about the German system, as well - with very high speeds, accidents may be fewer, but they are inevitably more serious. Swings and roundabouts, I guess. We need a study.

  9. It's a good thing the survey's anonymous, depending on whether there's a statute of limitations on speed or not. I have, at some point, maxed out every bike I've owned on the road - and since that includes an EXUP, Fireblade, ThunderAce and GSXR-1000...well, anyway...

    I would prefer to see default unrestricted motorways with variable limits in hazardous conditions. However, I doubt that our road infrastructure would support that without a lot of widening and a good deal more quality repairs than are currently carried out. Equally, I don't think the quality of UK driving, as currently observed, merits it: particularly not in a single step change.

    Part of the problem is the long-running and relentless emphasis on speed being bad and dangerous, at the expense of prosecuting any other form of poor driving. Reversing this, to allow vehicles with a much larger than current speed differential to safely share the same bit of road is going to require considerable re-education. otherwise, the number of accidents may not necessarily increase, but the severity of them is pretty much guaranteed to.

    For the moment, I'd be happy to see a strategic increase to, say, 90, with 120 in 5 years and unrestricted in 10*. That should give people time to get used to controlling their own machinery at higher speeds, as well as re-learning observation, lane discipline and the rules of the Highway Code en masse.

    I've never seen too much of an issue with people who want to go fast and are prepared to learn the skills to do so. It's the ones who just want to potter slwoly around in their own little comfortable bubble that are the real menace.

    * Maybe with an option that motorcycles should be one bracket ahead of that, as everyone knows we're all speed-crazed loons already.

  10. XX In Germany, on much of the autobahn network, there are no speed limits.XX

    On many of the Autobahns, there are streches which have no speed limits.

    A BIG difference to " On much of the Autobahn network, there are no speed limits". In fact MOST of the network is restricted to 120 or 180 KILOMETERS per hour.

    Taking road works into account, the average is 60.

    And even on the "derestricted" streches, there is a "reccomended speed limit", which comes into force if you have an accident whilst "derestricting"* yourself. So for police and insurance purposes, there is in fact NO derestricted Autobahns. Much like the situation re Canabis in Holland. It is NOT legal, it is merely "turned a blind eye to".

    * Can also refer to what happens after a party at Mad Miss Whiplash Mavis' place.

  11. I was basing it on my one ride through Germany (autobahn all the way Duisberg-Hannover-Hamburg-Kiel and back) and I don't recall seeing any speed limits other than on the approach to specific locations and temporary ones on road works. But I am aware that is based on limited knowledge and I stand corrected.

    Interesting about the 'recommended' limit. It's a bit like the Highway Code here - it has no legal force, but if you break it and have an accident it is strong evidence that you were in the wrong.

  12. Aye. Exactly like that. Same with the alcohol limit here. Just because you are below the limit, does not mean you will not get done for "drunk drive" if you have an accident.

    What you probably will not have come accross is the law regarding push bikes, and even pedestrians.

    If you are done for "drunk in charge of a bike", or SPEEDING on a push bike(!), or you cause a traffic accident through drink whilst a pedestrian, you can get points on your driving licence.

    Even if you have no licence, they will lay in wait for you. Then, if you ever apply/pass the test, they are automatically added to your new licence.

    Your theory on raising the speed limit reminds me of a Pratchett quote;

    "In banning guns, you are making a fundemental error. Criminals, by definition, do not obey the law." (Or something similar). Same with speeding I guess.

  13. Or, if you make holding guns criminal, then only criminals will have guns. Reminds me of the twits who respond to a speeding problem by advocating a lower limit. Problem is, the people who break the speed limit have already demonstrated that they don't obey speed limits, so a lower one is hardly the answer.

  14. *Googles*

    Correction: when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.


  15. If we're going to change speed limit signs perhaps this could be an opprotunity to replace mph with kph

  16. Hi all
    I am not British but I have lived in the UK for 2 years now. I like respecting rules and I love to see people respecting them as well. Driving on you motorways is a charm because - generally speaking - you do not have to watch for bad drives all the time.
    But, particularly recently, I come across a lot of cars running at 85/90/95 or even more. I usually set my speed control to 75mph on my satnav (80 on the speedometer) but I am constantly overtaken by cars running at much greater speed.
    Is there anything I do not know about speed limits or those people are just trying their luck?
    I do believe it wasn't so common last year.


  17. Anon: thanks for visiting and taking the trouble to leave a comment. I can't say I agree with you about liking rules and like to see people respecting them. Rules on theft and murder, obviously - but speed limits are necessarily arbitrary, and are as likely to be stupid as they are to be sensible. Driving on UK motorways is not a bad experience, although I would argue that French and German motorways are more orderly and pleasant places to drive/ride. If you stick to an indicated 80-85, you will probably be travelling with the majority. The occasional faster vehicle usually isn't a problem - what makes the motorways a hazardous place to be is the middle-lane owners' club travelling in the centre lane at 60, while the 'slow' lane is empty. The most dangerous thing on a motorway in my view is the careless lane-change, which can cause not only collisions directly but a knock-on effect of braking for miles behind, which can cause multiple shunts. Your impression that it is different from last year is probably mistaken: I haven't seen any change in behaviour in that time. These people are indeed trying their luck (against the speed cameras) but in effect they are just using the motorway as it should be. I have never been truly frightened by a faster driver, but I have been terrified by some slow ones.

  18. Just returned from another trip in France. I feel the tolls are well worth paying. Smooth drive on well maintained road surfaces & could always get easily back on my tracks if I missed an exit. Before raising the limit over here there is a serious need to first improve the roads'network & conditions. That in part is of the type of infrastructure investment badly needed here in boosting economic conditions.


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