Is it time to increase the UK’s speed limits?

A temporary limit in the Sixties was a sound idea, but how does it stack up against today’s technology?

In the middle of the swinging Sixties Lamborghini had just started making its first car, instead of tractors. Toyota had thought cars a better product than sewing machines. Our streets were filled with makes from the early part of the century, Morris Minors, Ford Anglias, Austin Healeys and the like.

Basic cars with even more basic abilities. Their brakes were predominantly drums front and rear; a relatively ineffective way of stopping a car. Anti-lock brakes, independent suspension, radial tyres, Halogen headlamps, even fog lights were things of the future.

In November 1965 we had very foggy weather that led to a series of multiple accidents. The Ministry of transport consulted with the National Road Safety Advisory Council (NRSAC) and decided that a limit of 70mph should be applied as an experimental measure during the winter months, lower when conditions were poor.

In early 1966 the weather brightened and so did the crash rate. There was no conclusive evidence to demonstrate whether the speed limit or the better road conditions reduced the number of crashes. In fact of the four sections of M1, M5 & M6 monitored, two noted no difference to the crash rate.

Fast forward some 50 years and the few Anglias, Healeys & Minors remaining are cherished classics, occasionally seen on sunny weekends trickling along the road, being passed by the general populous. Vehicles with significantly superior build quality and technology have replaced them. Disc brakes, ABS and traction control has been around for many years. The last few years have seen active braking systems with smart tech such as pre-braking, disc drying, brake assist. We now have active suspension, passive aerodynamics, LED & laser lighting intelligent lighting. There’s a whole raft of safety systems; heads-up display, autonomous braking, radar cruise control, lane change warning, night vision; the list goes on.

Before getting into trouble, the Top Gear trio tested a BMW, Nissan & Bentley’s stopping distance compared to the suggested Highway Code distance. They stopped in around a third of the distance suggested by the code. Put another way, they could stop within the code’s distance from over 120mph.

However, accidents still happen but rather than being splatted in an iron cage, we have developed ultra-high strength steel occupant cells, varied levelled crumple zones, multiple & staged air-bags, pre-tensioning seat belts, active head rests; space-aged stuff compared to granddad’s Hillman Imp.

Modern vehicles can handle speeds well in excess of our current limit and often do so legally outside the UK. Manufacturers tend to electronically limit their models to 155mph as a generally accepted safe limit to vehicles.

The UK’s 70mph speed limit does not take into consideration any other factors; it is 70mph come rain or shine. 70 mph whether it is clear & dry, busy & raining, or fog & ice for that matter. Most of Europe set their limits over 80mph in appropriate conditions, but reduce this when the coefficient of friction is reduced; in English, when it rains and the roads are slippy.
There are roads when the limits are currently excessive for the conditions, such as crowded streets especially near schools. It is not only the upper limits but lower ones two which need realigning with modern times.

Would there be an advantage to the UK if the speed limits on motorways were increased? In 2014 INRIX, a leading international real time traffic information provider released results from a study with the Centre for Economics & Business Research. They found that between 2013 and 2030 congestion would cost the UK some £307 billion. This equates to £2,057 per household simply due to congestion. From an economical point of view, allowing Britain’s arterial routes to flow quicker would make clear sense to businesses. The past four years have seen £45 million of speeding fines so the Treasury might not be so keen.

Gulian et al concluded that congested roads led to higher levels of stress and driver aggression, although we don’t need psychologists to confirm the frustrations we have all experienced sitting in traffic jams.

So why haven’t we increased the speed limit in line with vehicular capabilities?

There seems to be a general miss-conception that ‘speed kills’. Speed does not kill. Flying at 500mph in an EasyJet does not kill you. Rapid deceleration and impacts kill. The greater the speed the less time to react to a situation and the greater the resultant damage.

Motoring started soaring in 1935 to 3 million drivers on the Uk’s roads. Some 7,343 deaths were recorded back then as opposed to 2014 a relatively low 1,740 out of 38 million drivers – a reduction of over 5,000% per driver, or 0.004% of drivers per year.

Excessive speed is often cited as a factor in serious & fatal accidents; overtaking or losing control. This is not the speed of the car, but driver error. Would those frustrated drivers take the risk of overtaking if the general traffic were moving at a greater speed? Is risk taking proportional to low speed, frustrating congestion?

So what’s wrong with the UK’s drivers?

Fundamentally it is a lack of training; there is a relatively simple test in a small car on A roads at best. Thereafter we’re let loose in any car on any road and never tested or trained again. Compare this to air travel. Would you jump on a BA Boeing flown by a pilot who trained in a single engine Cessna 20 years ago? Pilots start off in small planes and work their way up through a series of tests for bigger and faster planes and differing conditions. They are also tested regularly and must fly a basic minimum number of hours.

This is evidenced by the disproportional number of RTA deaths in the under 19s. They are not given continual training but also have not gained sufficient experience to counter-balance this lack of knowledge. The UK is slowly starting to recognise this & beginning to impose restrictions.

Driver error still causes the vast majority of accidents. Regular training and restricted vehicle access, similar to pilots, could prevent a significant amount of mistakes. F1 champion Lewis Hamilton has just purchased a LaFerrari. There is little doubt that Lewis has the skills to control this 217mph machine. By contrast Great Aunt Betty struggles to control her 20 year old Micra at 45mph on her biannual trip to the grand-children. Is it right that Lewis is restricted to 70 mph whilst Aunt Betty is allowed to drive well beyond her limits?

So what’s the answer?

In conclusion, a tiered licensing system coupled with regular driver training and testing would allow a significant increase to the limits currently restricting the UK’s main arterial motorway & road network. There would be a reduction in accidents, deaths & driver’s mental health, whilst the economy would benefit from a reduction in congestion. We’d all get a few more precious minutes at home too.

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