Some years ago, one manager for whom I worked was always late for meetings. His ‘reason’ was that he already had 9 points on his licence for previous speeding offences, and therefore it was impossible for him to get to meetings on time. He was invariably at least half an hour late, leaving the rest of us sitting around for half an hour waiting for him. It used to irritate me, but it didn’t seem to have occurred to him either that it was possible to get to meetings on time by setting out earlier, nor that the time taken to get from A to B could not be calculated by simply dividing the number of miles by 70, because there would invariably be congestion, or road works, at some point along the route.
The Conservatives in Wales seem to be suffering from a similar inability to comprehend the reality of travelling by road, with their announcement today that they would raise the speed limit on the M4 from 70 to 80 mph. They argue that this “could play a vital role in getting our economy moving and offering invaluable support to hard-pressed motorists, commuters and businesses”. Leaving aside the words ‘hard-pressed’ which seem to be a mandatory requirement of any press release on any topic from any party these days, how, exactly, would it achieve that result?
On my calculation, the M4 in Wales runs for a little under 80 miles from end to end. Assuming that it were possible to travel at the maximum legal speed along the whole length, then at 80 mph it would take one hour, and at 70 mph it would take around 1 hour and 8 minutes. That 8 minutes is, of course, the absolute maximum time difference between the two speeds; we also need to factor in the stretch around Port Talbot where the speed limit is 50 mph, and the almost inevitable congestion at other points which reduces the maximum attainable speed. For most journeys for most drivers, the effective speed limit (and therefore duration of journey) is set by traffic conditions, not by the law. And let’s not forget that most journeys by most drivers don’t actually use the whole length of the M4 either.
Taking that absolute maximum of 8 minutes as a theoretical saving, do they really believe that that is enough to ‘get the economy moving’? And in what way does it offer ’invaluable support to … motorists, commuters and businesses’? The argument doesn’t stand up to a moment’s examination, and I’m afraid that I really don’t believe that Andrew RT Davies is stupid enough to believe it himself either. (I think I just paid him a compliment, of sorts, there.)
If it is not going to have the effect that he claims, then why is he proposing it? Only the man himself can know what’s in his own mind, I suppose, but I suspect that he’s actually trying to make a populist appeal to people like the manager whom I mentioned in the opening paragraph; people who believe that speed limits are somehow unfair, and that enforcing them is some sort of stealth tax on ‘innocent’ motorists, or means of preventing them going about their business.
There is room for debate about what the ‘correct’ speed limit should be. The improved safety of modern vehicles might suggest that it could be increased, whereas the increasing volume of traffic on our roads, and the need to reduce carbon emissions, might suggest a decrease, given the evidence that slower speeds increase the overall carrying capacity of roads and reduce total carbon costs. But a simplistic appeal to those who simply want to be allowed to drive faster isn’t the place to start that debate.Still, irresponsible and half-baked proposals are another indication of a party which doesn’t expect to be part of the government in Wales any time soon.