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

- George Washington

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Evil Tory Petrolheads Willing to Sacrifice Tiny Children Shock

At long last, there appears to be some serious debate about raising the archaic 70 mph speed limit on motorways, and a proposal to raise it to 80 mph. From the BBC website:
The Department of Transport is to launch a consultation on increasing the speed limit on England and Wales' motorways from 70mph to 80mph.

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said the current limit, introduced in 1965, was out of date due to "huge advances in safety and motoring technology".
About time, too. Apparently, the DoT thinks that 49% of drivers flout the current limit. Apparently, the DoT needs to get out more and put some miles in. When I drive or ride on the motorway, the default speed for the majority of cars and bikes is 80 mph. Some go slower, some go faster, but 80 is where you are in the flow of the traffic. So a change to the law would only be legitimising something that happens already, and which the police appear to be happy with.

But that isn't a good argument for raising the limit. Philip Hammond was interviewed on BBC News Channel this evening, and Matthew Amroliwala challenged him, saying that just because people break the law does not mean the law should be changed. After all, people burgle houses, but we don't say "well, people are doing it anyway, so we might as well legalise it". Hammond swerved that one, and started talking about improved technology, whereas he should have been firm that this was not the reason for the proposals.

Where Hammond was on surer ground was when he said the law was 'discredited'. He's right: very few people act as if they believe that they are only safe at 69 mph and likely to die a horrible death if they stray up to 71. People know that the limit was introduced by Tom Fraser (in response to a number of serious accidents in fog, work that one out) and made permanent by Barbara Castle, the non-driving 'motorists' friend', at a time when most cars were pretty much flat out at 70 and ABS was still a rare option on high-end motors. In a modern car (or on a modern bike), 70 is pretty much a mid-point in the vehicle's capabilities. My car cruises at 70 with around 2000 rpm on the clock - less than halfway to the redline - and if I am going for it, the Sprint is just into second gear at this speed. Add in the inherent reliability and stability of modern vehicles (think Ford Focus compared to Ford Zephyr), pre-tensioning seat belts, radial tyres, airbags, crumple zones, passenger safety cells, brake assist, stability control, traction control and the universal fitting of ABS to cars, and it becomes obvious that the limit set in 1965 is way, way out of date. Everyone knows this, and most people treat the 70 limit more as something to keep the speed cameras happy than anything to do with safety.

Matthew Amroliwala tried to argue that, just because a law was discredited, it does not mean that it should be repealed. But that's exactly what should happen. Human laws are not handed down on tablets of stone from a deity who must be obeyed; they are the expressions of someone's will. In a democracy, one might hope that they would be expressions of the popular will, but perhaps that is too much to ask. Nevertheless, man made the law, and if man thinks it is no longer appropriate, man should change it. Unless you are arguing that the 70 limit was the hidden item 11 on the tablets Moses received, then any law is up for debate. That is right and proper.

There are two substantive objections that will plague the debate from start to finish. One is the likelihood of slightly increased casualties. Bluntly, raising the limit is unlikely to cause any more accidents, but those that do occur are likely to be slightly more severe. Yes, a few extra people will die. Hammond's response was the argument from utility: the small number of extra casualties will be more than outweighed by the benefits to the economy and people's personal lives through the reduction in journey times. Amroliwala spluttered at this, and you could almost hear the "if it saves one life ..." mantra waiting to be uttered. But Hammond stood his ground and said that if no-one went out of the house, then we could have no accidents at all, but that this was really not a sustainable state of affairs. Good for him.

The second is the environmental argument - increased vehicle speed will mean increased emissions. I don't think you can deny that, although I would argue the point from pollution/fumes/smog (which I detest) rather than CO2 and Global Warming Climate Change Disruption (which I don't believe in), but the argument from utility is relevant here too. There may well be a small increase in vehicle emissions, but this may be counterbalanced by greater ecomonic benefits elsewhere. This is surely what the consultation is set up to debate and discover.

But rest assured that there will be a lively debate, with loud and heart-rending interjections by the mental environists and the cotton-wool safety ninnies.

Me, I'm not sure it will make much difference. I'll take myself as an example, and assume that at least some people will think like me. Sometimes, I burble along at 60, enjoying the economy and a slower pace. The 70 limit is irrelevant then. Sometimes I like to blast along (conditions permitting) and have been known to travel long distances at three-figure speeds (on private land, of course). When I am doing this, whether the limit is 70 or 80 doesn't matter a hoot. I'm looking at a ban whatever, if I am caught. But my normal speed, in moderate traffic, is between 70 and about 85 mph. That's the speed that gets me where I am going in a reasonable time, without causing undue stress to my brain, or putting me in undue danger from other road users. If the limit is raised to 80, will I rack it up and start riding at between 80 and 95? I don't think so. In fact, the opposite effect may happen: if the new limit is 80, I may well decide that I am happy with that, avoid the stress of watching my mirrors, and stay legal. Paradoxically, raising the limit may actually reduce average speeds.

Think of it from the police's point of view: currently, most drivers/riders on the motorway are over the limit. What do they do? They can't catch and prosecute them all, so they fall back on formulas such as the limit + 10% + 2 that ACPO own up to, and it all gets complicated. If the limit were raised and most people were actually obeying the law, the police are then free to go after the real dangers, the nutters who think 120 on a crowded motorway is a good idea, or who change lanes without looking or signalling.

Two years ago, I posted how drivers on the unrestricted sections of autobahn in Germany were extremely good at sticking to speed limits when they were posted, such as around road works. My theory was (and is) that where people can see that speed limits are imposed where necessary, and for a good reason, they will obey them. The same logic may apply to the raising of the 70 limit to 80: if people recognise that it is a reasonable compromise, maybe they will be happier to stick to it.

I'm delighted that the issue is being debated at all. In the current safety-obsessed culture, I thought that a mature discussion of speed limits would never arise, unless it was to ratchet them down further. So at least two cheers for Philip Hammond and the Tories for daring to raise the subject. Apart from the aforementioned Greens and Ninnies, it would be immensely popular.

And the coalition need some good news right now.

UPDATE: Wolfers is less impressed.


  1. There is no need whatsoever for a 'consultation'. The speed limit in this country is out of step with the rest of the geographical land called Europe.

    The decision has already been taken all that is left is the lying to show the plebs that the government runs this little island not the EU.

  2. Sadly, you are probably right.

  3. Don't forget that the french limit is lower in wet weather, quite a sensible compromise which I have not seen mentioned in the UK reports.

  4. Yes, 130/81 in the dry and 110/68 in the wet. And people pretty much stick to it, as far as I have seen. But (correct me if I am wrong) this is the French doing theings their own way. Probably the EU will declare such a 'non-conforming'limit to be outside the spirit of co-operation that they so earnestly promote, in due course. And the French will carry on doing things their own way.

  5. Our roads are so clogged anyway with middle lane hoggers I don't see increasing the limit will make any difference to journey times and create "economic benefits", certainly not with the price of fuel as high as it is (fuel consumption goes up proportionally by the square of speed).

    And what about commercial vehicles e.g. HGVs? no mention of this is where a real economic benefit may be gained surely? Not by sales reps texting in the fast lane.

  6. The Law of Unintended consequences may kick-in.

    Could overall safety be increased because all those idiot drivers will be on the road for less time? ;-)


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