So, The Guardian have got themselves all agitated about Transport Secretary Philip ‘Mr Slimy’ Hammond’s proposal to raise the national speed limit to 80 mph, in this editorial, this article about speed safety and this article about environmental damage. And do you know what? Despite being a person of normally strong views, both a Guardian reader and a Top Gear fan, it’s an issue I find hard to care about either way.
On one hand, it’s true that the national speed limit was set at a time when most people’s cars would struggle to exceed 60mph. Nearly 50 years of advancement in automotive technology means that today, most cars can exceed 70mph routinely, and with far greater safety than cars travelling at 55 in the 60s. Would you feel safer to do a nice, modest 50mph in this:
Or an admittedly naughty 90mph in this:
I’ll grant, you shouldn’t be speeding in either. But if the limit was raised to 80 mph and you had a crash at that speed in the Mini, I think you can safely say you’ll stand a better chance of walking away from it than a 50mph crash in the Austin 1100 – well below the 70mph that was already the national speed limit when it was built. So the safety argument, for me, doesn’t really hold water.
On the other hand, the argument about fuel profligacy does – a bit. With fossil fuel dwindling rapidly, to the extent that wars are fought over it, it does seem illogical to tacitly condone driving at speeds that cause cars to consume far more of it. Fuel economy in a modern car is leagues ahead of one from the 60s. But it’s still true that the faster you go – and the higher your engine revs – the more fuel you will consume. In the case of a 10mph increase in the speed limit, with a modern car, it is possible that the increased fuel usage will be so negligible as to make little difference. Whether you support it depends on whether you believe any increase in fuel usage, however infinitesimal, is acceptable.
There are, of course, engineering solutions to that problem. Better chosen gear ratios is the most obvious, though the most sensible would be a more thorough approach to developing alternative fuels. I totally agree with the principle of making motoring more efficient rather than trying to stop it altogether, but until we come up with a realistic alternative to fossil fuel, it’s still ultimately an unsustainable activity. More efficient vehicles do postpone its inevitable end, but affordable and convenient public transport would postpone it still further. Not to mention making congestion far lighter for the inevitable people who still insist on driving. Ultimately though, the ideal would be to try and lower the amount of cars – and freight – on the roads.
A good start would be a decent rail network with financial incentives for companies to use it for freight. The sheer volume of large trucks on the road contributes vastly to both congestion and fuel usage. If this worked, profits from it could be used to subsidise passenger fares – right now, it’s always cheaper for two people to drive to a destination than buy train tickets. Even if they’re driving a 4 litre Jeep that does 15 miles to the gallon.
This would require massive investment in a decent public transport infrastructure, which in the short term would haemorrhage money. It’s the only sensible thing to do, but even if any politician had the guts to try it, I’ve no idea where they’d get the money from at this point. The private sector is unlikely to front up the money and the government simply can’t. So, making the current activity more efficient is probably the best solution we have right now.
Given all of that, I think that a 10mph rise in the speed limit comes off as a trivial, political, vote chasing move that ultimately makes very little difference to anything. So trivial in fact that I find it hard to care enough to support or oppose it. But if Mr Hammond must try to buy votes by allowing speed crazy Clarkson wannabes to tailgate me in their BMWs with impunity, so be it. I don’t think it will make much difference either to accident rates or to fuel usage. The one thing I’d ask is that it starts getting actually enforced – not by revenue generating speed cameras, but by actual, real human police officers who can make human judgements.
There’s the obvious fact that motorists slow down for speed cameras then speed right back up again once past them; average speed cameras help somewhat, but still have the basic flaw that, if you drive at 50 for half the distance between them, you can then drive at 90 for the rest without incurring any penalties. Two officers with a radar gun, placed at random times and random places, is a far better approach – and allows for human judgement about cases that aren’t clear cut, for example accelerating out of the way of a hazard. And speeding may be symptomatic of a driver in no fit state to drive anyway. A police officer would recognise this and stop the driver from going any further, potentially preventing accidents; a speed camera would merely issue them with a penalty after the fact.
But of course, we can’t have real policemen any more, because they cost too much. If The Guardian’s columnists are genuinely worried about reducing accidents, they might want to start with that. As to the 10mph increase in the speed limit, it’s a storm in a political teacup whose effect on the real world will be hard to even notice.