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13 Oct 2011

80mph speed limit: Arguments for and against!

80mph speed limit: Arguments for and against!

Finally, more than 40 years after the 70mph motorway speed limit was introduced, we have an enlightened Transport Secretary with the apparent courage to address the reality of life on our roads and suggest the possibility of raising the maximum to 80mph, in the process banishing an anachronistic piece of Sixties’ legislation.

Why all the fuss and furore? A 70mph limit might have made sense in the mid-Sixties, when few cars were capable of travelling at sustained high speed, but most modern cars – even the venerable Land Rover Defender, which is among the slowests car on sale today, can muster 82mph – will easily cruise at 70mph and more.

It’s not just the engine technology that has advanced in leaps and bounds, but suspension, tyres and, crucially, braking systems. According to The Highway Code, the recommended stopping distance from 70mph, including reaction time, is 96 metres or 315 feet. An average Volkswagen Golf, the biggest-selling car in Europe, is capable of stopping from the same speed in only 49.3 metres.

Philip Hammond ’s suggestion to look at raising the limit to 80mph certainly looks like a populist move. Indeed, a survey carried out for Autocar magazine this week reveals that 94.6 per cent of drivers admit to breaking the limit, including my esteemed colleague Mr Millward. If this is so, what’s wrong with raising the maximum? Especially when the same survey shows that 6.1 per cent of respondents always break the motorway speed limit by 20mph. Raising the limit wouldn’t be carte blanche for drivers to set their own arbitrary limits.

And the move has been backed by the AA, although the motoring organisation proposes variable limits of up to 80mph rather than a blanket maximum.

Of course there are downsides. Raising motorway speed limits to boost the economy? The only thing it will boost is fuel company profits, because no matter how frugal cars are these days it remains true that the faster you go the more fuel you use.

Road safety is the major sticking point, but it must be repeated that speed per se doesn’t kill. It’s a matter of appropriate speed. No one in their right mind would argue against driving at much reduced speed in adverse weather, particularly in the fog that afflicts many roads at this time of year. In good conditions, with a clear road, would it really be so outrageous to have a maximum of 100mph?

This system is at its best on French autoroutes. The 130kph (81mph) limit for good conditions works well. Crucially, French drivers observe the lower 110kph (68mph) limit in inclement weather.

The best part about Mr Hammond’s proposal is that it has reignited the debate about personal mobility and responsibility. We’re a generally law-abiding lot so there won’t be many tears shed if the whole thing gets quietly forgotten, as is likely – until the next time a Transport Secretary dares to raise the question.