30/09/2011 09:34 | By Ian Dickson

Why it's time to raise the motorway speed limit



Motorway speed limit may rise to 80mph (© Image © BMW)

Plans to raise the motorway speed limit to 80mph are under consultation.

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said the current 70mph limit was "out of date" and that an increase to 80mph would lower journey times and "help get Britain moving". If the plans get the go-ahead the limit is likely to be changed in 2013.

80mph speed limit plans revealed

The move comes after Department for Transport evidence revealed 49% of motorists ignore the current 70mph speed limit, introduced in 1965.

But 46 years is a long time without change - the motorway speed limit should have been upgraded years ago. Here's why. When the 70mph national speed limit was introduced to the M1 motorway in 1965, it was intended to be a temporary measure.

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After a spate of high-speed crashes in fog – and the rumour that the M1 was being used as a drag strip to testthe new 180mph AC Cobra – the Labour government experimented with speed restrictions. Two years later thenational 70mph limit was born. Every UK motorway and dual carriageway would from then on be governed by aspeed limit.

No safety aids in those days

Safety aids weren't around in the '60s (© Image © Mercedes)

Safety aids weren't around in the 60s

At the time it was probably a sensible thing. Cars were so dangerous in those days they made a Taliban training camp look like Butlins. We take it for granted now, but back in the 1960s there were no such things as anti-lock brakes, crumple zones, airbags or skid prevention systems.

These simple, life-saving devices are fitted to most new cars today, and they not only protect us, they prevent crashes. Before the proliferation of these devices it was down to your own skill and luck – or lack of it – that determined your crash fate. If the worst did happen, you needed luck on your side if you were going to walk away unscathed.

Empics (© Empics)

Nearly 50 years on and the draconian speed restrictions remain, despite a massive slide in the number of people killed on our roads. In 1966, the year after the 70mph speed limit was first imposed, 7,985 people lost their lives on Britain’s roads – the third highest on record.

Yet by 2006 this number had fallen to 3,201, the lowest ever. That's still 3,201 too many, but the roads are, statistically speaking, much safer than they were in 1966. And you also need to bear in mind that car numbers have doubled over this time as well. Currently, the UK has more than 30 million cars, compared to 18.5 million in 1983, when records started.

22 of the UK's fastest-speeding motorists

Time to get sensible

In 2007, under the Labour government, a study was commissioned to look at raising the national speed limit from 70mph to 78mph as this was the "point at which benefits from reduced journey times are in balance with fuel and accident costs". Of course, it made headlines for a day or two, but the idea was abandoned.

As it stands, the police allow some flexibility for speedo error. This is 10% plus two. So that means you could theoretically do 79mph and probably escape conviction. Of course, it depends on the copper who pulls you over or how the speed camera is set up. But as a general rule of thumb it’s a fairly safe bet. Don’t expect the same leeway if the speed limit is increased to the proposed 80mph. Somehow I can’t see the police turning a blind-eye to my storming along the M4 at 90mph. “But officer, I’m allowing for error in my speedo.”

Speeding police officers exposed

Speeders will be punished harder (© Image © Kia)

Speeders will be punished harder

If the speed limit is raised to 80mph you can guarantee it will be more tightly enforced than it is now. So for starters, expect only one or two mph margin for error, which means I will be driving along with one eye on the speedo, the other scanning the horizon. Don't be surprised either if the motorway network is guarded by a platoon of average speed cameras ready to nab the heavy-footed or inattentive.

Safety will suffer as a result, especially when some idiot who is paying more attention to the numbers on his speedo than what's around him, veers into my lane. The chances are I will not avoid him because I will be too busy keeping to the speed limit to notice.

There is no doubt speeders will be punished more harshly. Philip Hammond, MP, told The Times: "'If 50% of the population are routinely breaking the law it's actually the law that needs looking at." So the law will change, but so too will the governance of it.

That means more cameras, not more traffic cops. Already, the government is considering a network of average speed cameras for motorways and country roads, like the ones positioned at road works at present. Break the speed limit and a fine is automatically sent to your address. And you probably won't even know you did it.

Celebrity speeders exposed

Variable limits are the way forward

Variable speed limits like this one on the M25 are effective (© Image © Steve Parsons/PA/Empics)

Variable speed limits work

A more intelligent system is one that’s flexible. How about variable speed limits that change depending on time of day, weather conditions and traffic – similar to what’s used on some parts of the M25? At present, these only go one way: the digital speed signs advise us to restrict our speed when the conditions are bad but they don’t allow us to drive a bit quicker when conditions are perfect.


On a quiet, dry motorway where’s the harm in doing 95mph or 100mph if the driver is confident and the car is in perfect working order? Speaking from personal experience, I know that when I drive quickly on boring, traffic-free roads I’m a lot more alert that I would be if I were dawdling along at 70mph.

Cars like the BMW 335i Coupe can shed speed in half the distance recommended (© Image © BMW)

BMW's 335i Coupé will stop in half the distance

And should a large, hairy animal emerge from the undergrowth and step out in front of me, I’ll be driving a modern car with strong brakes and an abundance of safety systems.

The world's most expensive speeding tickets

For instance, from 70mph the clearly-out-of-date Highway Code says I’ll need 96 metres to stop. Not if I’m in a Honda CR-V 4x4 which can pull up from 70mph in less than 55 metres.

Better still, if I happen to be in a BMW 335i Coupé I will shed speed in half the distance recommended by the Highway Code. It's about time this guide was refreshed for the 21st century. If this was a school text book, we would be calling for it to be modernised and made relevant for the good of those people expected to learn from it.

Drivers need to use the lanes properly (© Image © David Jones/PA/Empics)

Drivers need to use the lanes properly

A bigger problem we face is the hoggers who are allergic to the inside lane of the motorway. It is these people who are causing more problems to the road network than those of us driving modern, safe cars slightly above the speed limit. Speed is always the issue, yet it only accounts for 5% of accidents. It’s actually inattentiveness that causes the majority of accidents.

A more thoughtful and intelligent approach to speeding is what’s needed. If we get 80mph speed limits with stricter enforcement, we will be worse off than before. Instead, follow the example of our cousins on the continent: give us variable speed limits that adjust depending on weather, time and road conditions. That will really make our lives more efficient and safer.

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