Transport Business International: Identifying the precise need for speed
By Hannah Sampson, Saunders Law
12th March 2014
Three years after the idea was first considered by Government, motoring law specialist Hannah Sampson shares her views on fresh proposals to increase the speed limit on motorways
A year ago, increasing the national speed limit on Britain's motorways to 80mph was at the forefront of parliamentary debate and set to happen. The idea was shelved but it would appear that this might now be back on the table for discussion.
I last wrote about this issue at the start of last year when the Government looked set to increase the speed limit to 80mph. Originally the policy was launched with a fanfare in 2011 by then Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, who claimed the 70mph limit had been 'discredited' and a rise to 80mph would boost the economy.
The increased limit was to be tested on sections of motorway in the UK with a view to it being set nationwide. However, Mr Hammond was replaced by Patrick McLoughlin who in June last year, announced the policy was no longer a priority.
It is in fact believed to be the case that these plans were shelved because the Government believed it would ostracise female voters.
More recently however, divisions have emerged in the Department for Transport, with Junior Transport Minister Stephen Hammond revealing the plan could be easily introduced because the Government has 'not stopped work' on the idea. Mr McLoughlin made it clear that this was not on the current agenda due to other more pressing issues but it seems that this particular issue of speed limits on our motorways just will not go away.
Weighing cost vs benefit
The debate remains a contentious one. Some would say that given the modern technology and safety standards of vehicles today 80 mph is a sensible speed for a modern society. Indeed Britain's limits are lower than many countries in Europe; France and Italy impose a maximum of 81mph whilst on certain stretches of road in Germany there are no restrictions at all.
However the flipside of this is that the cost to society is said by some to far outweigh any other benefit. Campaign groups suggest that given the number of vehicles on our roads, raising the limit would cost society an extra lb1 billion a year. lb766 million of this would be on fuel bills alone.
The trials were set to start this year but the Government took a U-turn and shelved their plans. It was later last year following the comments of Stephen Hammond that it appeared that these proposed changes were back on the table. This came as welcome news to many.
A realistic assessment
Far from being a potential vote loser, it would seem to be the case that all concerns aside most voters if asked would take the view that we drive at 80mph anyway and the law ought to catch up with reality. At present very few people adhere to the 70mph limit on our motorways. Indeed, if you stick to 70mph you will find yourself in the slow lane more often than not. If speed limits were set at sensible levels then chances are motorists would respect them.
Very few motorists object when they are told to slow down to 20mph outside a school. This is a realistic limit set for safety reasons. Why then shouldn't there be a slight increase on our motorways to acknowledge our much changed and modern society?
The advances in technology alone mean that today's vehicles can drive safely at this increased speed provided enough distance is left between vehicles. Brakes and safety systems on cars are far better than a decade ago, let alone than in 1965 when the 70mph was set. There are also the advances in road technology to be considered.
Variable speed limits can be applied to busier sections of road. There are also message boards which can be programmed and could allow motorists to drive at the higher limit on quieter stretches of motorway or at quieter times of day.
Safety on our roads must surely be a priority consideration when deciding upon this issue. The suggestion of a trial rather than a consultation seems sensible.
However, is it not the case that any survey would reveal that at least half of this country's drivers (probably more if they are honest) regularly drive at 80mph on our motorways? Surely the trial has been done.
Benefit of the doubt
Some feel that legalising the 80 mph limit would cause some to drive at 90mph on the basis that 90mph would be "just" over the limit but the reality of this is perhaps that there will always be a few who will break the law and drive at ridiculous speeds on our roads. It is these people who need to be stopped and prosecuted.
As for the rest of us, perhaps we should be given the benefit of the doubt and the law should be adapted to the reality of day-to-day driving.
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