Monday 3 October 2011

Make haste slowly

The Government’s proposal to increase the top speed limit to 80mph will no doubt appeal to that section of the population which regards adherence to laws on speeding as being optional.  It tends to be the same group which regards the use of speed cameras as somehow ‘unsporting’, as if the whole thing is a game in which the main object is not to abide by the rules, but simply to avoid getting caught breaking them.
I worked with someone once who was always late for meetings, because he already had nine points on his licence and couldn’t afford to drive fast enough to arrive on time.  ‘Set out earlier’ was the thought that went through my mind; but the view that speed limits are somehow an unfair and unnecessary restriction on normal business is not unlike that being expressed by the current government.
There almost seems to be a sort of collective belief amongst some that speeding – like taking home the office stationery – isn’t a ‘real’ crime.  ‘Proper’ crimes have to have obvious victims, and an apparently ‘victimless’ crime should therefore be treated differently.  In reality, speeding isn’t victimless, and never has been - but it is true that the ratio of crimes to victims is different.  Whilst there is a victim in every single case of robbery, the same is not true for speeding.  Because the overwhelming majority of instances of law-breaking on the motorways do not have a victim at all, the misguided generalisation can gain credence.
The government’s thinking appears to be rather muddled, to say the least.  On the one hand, they argue that there will be huge economic advantages in allowing people to drive that little bit faster; on the other they argue that the law as it stands is unenforceable, since half the drivers are already exceeding the limit anyway.  I find it hard to reconcile those two statements, unless the intention in reality is to increase the effective, enforced speed limit from 80 to 90mph.
I’m not convinced by the argument that so many people break the law anyway, that it’s unenforceable.  It is, again, based on the idea that there are different degrees of crime; it’s certainly not a suggestion that would be made for most other breaches of the law.  Widespread disregard of a law is not, in itself, an argument against the law, particularly if a major part of that disregard is based on an unwillingness by the authorities to enforce the law.
Nor am I convinced by the argument that it will enable people to get to their destination sooner.  Most of the motorway network is so congested that theoretical top speeds are rarely achievable anyway.  Besides, work done by governments over many years has shown that total road capacity can best be increased by maintaining a lower and more consistent average speed – it’s what has led to the variable speed control systems used in places like the M25. 
And paradoxically, increasing the speed at which some travel could have the end effect of reducing the overall average speed of all motorists – leading to an increase in average journey time rather than a decrease.  The best overall average speed for all seems to be achieved when the variation between the speed of different vehicles is reduced, not when the speed of the fastest is increased.
The one thing that no-one seems to dispute is that the fuel and pollution cost of the proposed increase is significant, and will make it harder to achieve agreed emissions targets.  For a government which said it was aiming to be the greenest ever, it’s a major step away from that aim. 
It may also affect the balance of attractiveness between public and private transport.  Although the actual impact on journey times is likely to be minimal, that will not prevent people from believing that they can achieve a journey in a shorter time, and choosing to use their cars as a result.  That belief may not be rational, but that doesn’t stop people taking decisions on the basis of it.
All in all it looks more like an attempt to be populist in order to gain the support of a particular section of the electorate than part of a coherent transport policy.


Glyndo said...

"Most of the motorway network is so congested that theoretical top speeds are rarely achievable anyway."

C'mon John, that's pure BS.

Boncath said...

Given that the current limit of 70 mph appears to be policed only if the plus 10% option is applied then it would appear that the new limit cold be in reality 88 mph
Also policing is not an exact science in that the Police seem to be able to and do exercise discretionary powers

The fact that an increase would lead to additional deaths was dismissed as an economic gain
this surely streches the boundary of political cynicism to new deaths

The viewpoint in Wales where it is vitually impossible to safely maintain speeds over 70 mph unless you are on a few motorway sections between 0100 and 0400 hours -- is that this proposal is insane

John Dixon said...


A little harsh. Perhaps my comment was a bit sweeping, but certainly sustained high speed is simply not possible (even if it were desirable) on much of the motorway network in my experience, particularly at peak times - which is when most of the claimed 'economic benefits' would be achieved, if there were any.

There are, though, certainly times and locations when sustained high speed is possible (Boncath highlights some in the other comment); I just don't believe that they are the times and places which see most business travel.


I understand that the previous UK Government carried out some opinion research to find out how much the public at large thought it was worth spending to save a single life. The answer came out at around £1million, and what they have done is to offset that value, multiplied by the extra number of deaths, against their claimed benefits, and come to the conclusion that there is still an overall economic benefit.

It reminds me of the saying that economists are people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, but actually, it's an approach used often in one way or another, in order to try and reduce everything to pounds and pennies. They just don't usually state, quite so openly, that they are placing a price on a life.

Anonymous said...

Germany has a speed limit of 80mph, but also has a reduced speed for wet/icy conditions, a more sensible approach to road safety.

You mean there's more??? said...

Hi John,

Glyndo can't have a lot of experience of the UK motorway network. Ha can't have seen the M25 in full car park mode.

The M5/6 in speed control mode. Something that works a lot better than the M25 incidentally.

70 is not a speed limit it's an aspiration for much of the motorway system for much of the time.

The serious argument is one about the effect on fuel consumption that I set out on my own blog.

Trucks for example will never do 70 even if the law is changed for them too. The increase in fuel consumption on something with the aerodynamics of a barn would not be afffordable.

This is legislation by some Tory rich kid who has not noticed fuel prices have gone through the roof.

They seem quite stable at the moment though - no sign of dropping eve though oil has hit some lows recently.

Unknown said...

They have obviously calculated that the Clarksonite vote is worth cultivating, whatever the cost. Why , I can't imagine, as almost all of them are stupid enough to vote Tory anyway! Those that don't vote Tory will be voting BNP.

Unknown said...

This isn't really a huge concern for us in Wales since we only have one fairly small stretch of motorway.

Transport is devolved so really we could keep the speed limits as they are which would be better since a lot of our one and only motorway is only two lane and it'd be far greener too. I read that driving at 80 uses 20% more consumption than driving at 70.

If they really want to make the motorways more efficient then they need to crack down on people driving too slowly as this is not only dangerous but causes phantom traffic jams.

But then when was the last time you saw a police car on the motorway in Wales?