We hear today that Labour is proposing extensive reductions in speed limits, including widespread 20 mph limits in residential areas, and reductions on single-carriageway rural “A” roads from 60 to 50 mph. How soon before 50 becomes the standard limit on all rural roads?
Do these people have any experience of the real world? Have they ever driven a car at 20 mph? Have you ever driven a car at 20 mph? Just for the feel of it, try going out and driving at 20 mph (until the cars behind start to hoot in protest!). It feels like a walking pace.
Of course it’s true (and pretty facile) to say that if you hit a pedestrian at thirty, there is more risk of death or serious injury than if you hit him at twenty. True, but largely irrelevant. The government’s own statistics indicate that excessive speed is a factor in only around 13% of accidents. The figure for excessive speed over and above the speed limit is in single figures (bear in mind that a speed may be excessive for the particular circumstances at the time, even if within the speed limit).
Politicians can get into terrible trouble when they start to suggest any trade off between “health and safety” and any other factor (for example, in the allocation of scarce medical resources). The cry goes up “you can’t put a value on human life”. But in road safety, we have to recognise such a trade-off, and you can demonstrate that simply by contemplating an extreme speed limit. The “Red Flag Act” reference may be clichéd in the speeding debate, but it’s totally relevant here. If the only objective is safety, we could have a Man with a Red Flag walking ahead of every vehicle, and a universal speed limit of 4 mph, as we had from 1865 to 1896 (strongly supported by the horse-drawn vehicle lobby). Or we could simply ban cars altogether, and have people walk or cycle or use the bus (though I daresay that even then we should have accidents). But clearly such measures would be unacceptable to the people. They would do huge economic damage, and cause vast disruption of social life. They would deny people the basic freedom to move about. Love it or hate it, the car is indispensable.
If you follow this reasoning, there is clearly a reasonable balance to be struck between safety and convenience. The only question is, do we have the balance right, or are speed limits too high (or too low)? There are powerful reason to believe that speed limits are quite low enough — perhaps too low — already.
Driving at artificially low speeds — twenty miles an hour, for example — leads to boredom and frustration, which are inimical to concentration and good driving.
A lower speed limit in residential areas will lead pedestrians to feel safer, and many will consequently take less care.
The overwhelming majority of accidents are caused by a small group of people — largely young, male drivers. Add in drink-drivers, lager louts, alcoholics and joy-riders. We should target these people who cause most accidents, not force the great majority of careful and responsible drivers to go at a snail’s pace.
There is an economic and environmental cost to low speeds: while generally cars use less fuel at lower speeds, you start to lose these efficiency savings when you get to very low speeds requiring the use of low gears.
Finally, we need to consider that cars today are hugely safer than they were ten or twenty years ago. Better primary safety, in terms of passenger protection. Better secondary safety, in terms of handling and braking. Better pedestrian safety, with collision-friendly designs and materials. Indeed the greatly increased safety of modern cars suggests we ought to be thinking of a relaxation of speed limits, not a tightening. Before the last election, it was Conservative policy to recognise reality by raising the motorway limit from 70 to 80 mph. I hope we will stick to that pledge. The main threat to the government’s plan for lower limits is that it will bring the law into disrepute and be widely ignored by the motoring public.
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