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Sensible speed limits

Updated on February 27, 2011


The first speed limit was introduced in the UK in 1861, and it was 10mph. The current speed limit on the UK motorways is 70mph. The current speed limit in UK towns and built-up areas is 30mph. Only 4% of accidents occur on motorways, and 75% of accidents occur in towns. Thus, it is safer to drive fast than it is to drive slowly. Well, no, that is not proven by these statistics because speed is not the causal effect driving these statistics, but this rather nicely illustrates the stupidity of the simplistic phrase "speed kills", which is used by campaigners who want to continually reduce speed limits everywhere.

Are fixed speed limits the answer?

Well, having established that "speed does not kill", what would be a better phrase? "Driving at a speed inappropriate for the conditions is likely to cause road accidents" would be far more accurate and useful, but it doesn't suit the modern obsession with short sound-bytes.

However, it is the crux of the matter. With modern cars, that are about ten times safer than the cars of 30 years ago, it can easily be argued (and proven by statistics) that motorway speeds of 100mph are very safe in conditions where there is not an excess of traffic, the visibility is good, and the road surfaces are dry. Despite this, even the actual legal speed limit of 70mph on these roads is crazily high in dense fog, when it is snowing, with an icy road surface, at night. A speed limit of 20mph or 30mph would be far more appropriate.

What this illustrates is that fixed speed limits are not really the answer. What is a safe speed to drive at is dependent upon so many factors other than just the type of road (motorway, dual-carriageway, A-road, B-road, country road, urban road, etc.).

Factors affecting a safe speed to drive

The factors include: the health of the driver (fit, ill, disabled, etc.), the state of the driver (tired, energetic, lethargic, drunk, etc.), the road conditions (dry, wet, icy), the weather conditions (cloudy, sunny, clear, foggy, raining, sleet, snowing, etc.), the amount of traffic on the road (deserted, very little, average, busy, congested, etc.), the type of vehicle being driven (heavy goods vehicle, small lorry/truck, van, saloon car, small car, sports car, etc.), the age of the car (a 30-year old car is much less safe than a modern car), and the condition of the car (low mileage, high mileage, well-maintained, not maintained, etc.).

So what about the statistics?

So with all of these factors in play, how can we set fixed speed limits dependent just upon the type of road? Well we do, but clearly it is a nonsense to do so. Thirty years ago or more, regulation of speed was solely by human beings (police officers) who used discretion to ascertain if a driver was driving at a speed suitable for the conditions, and prosecuted those who were clearly driving at an unacceptable speed taking into account the factors above. Today, with fixed and mobile speed cameras, an intolerant anti-car lobby trying to reduce speed limits to very low speeds everywhere, and people obsessed with safety beyond all practical common-sense, discretion has been thrown away, and absolutes are imposed without question.

Someone doing 50mph on a dual-carriageway with motorway-style entrance and exit slip-roads, where the speed limit always used to be 70mph, and in dry, clear conditions in a modern sports car, with not much traffic on the road - in other words driving very safely, with an almost zero chance of having an accident - might suddenly find themselves flashed by a speed camera, and end up with points on their license (increasing their insurance costs) and a fine, because someone has decided to reduce the speed limit on that section of road to 40mph. Often, the statistics will not show that the new speed limit has reduced accidents at all, and often it can increase the number of accidents (this information is stated having analysed the statistics published by local councils about accidents on their roads - some of them prove by their own statistics that they publish themselves, that the reduction of the speed limit, and the introduction of a speed camera, has actually increased the number of accidents on a particular road).

It is well known that people obey the laws that they feel are reasonable, and ignore the ones that they find completely unreasonable. It is also well-known that most speed limits are exceeded by the majority of drivers on the roads, and yet our roads are comparatively safe. This is evidence that the majority of citizens believe speed limits to be set too low, and that failure to obey the speed limits is not causing an excessive number of fatal accidents.

Roughly 2500 people die on the roads each year, about 7 per day. This may sound tragic, but compared with the number of road journeys made per day in the UK, which is about 100 million, it means that each time you make a trip by road, the chances of you having a fatal accident are a mere 0.000007%, which is about the same chance as you winning the Lottery jackpot from buying a single ticket. Most people do not expect to win the lottery jackpot in their lifetime, and, not surprisingly, most people do not expect to die in a road accident in their lifetime.

The argument that "one death on the roads is one too many" is an invalid argument. It is not practical to eliminate all accidents on roads, any more than it is possible to stop all deaths through illness or murder. One of the practicalities of life is that it is fragile, and people will die before they reach old age from a number of causes, and these deaths can never be completely eliminated. We should stop being so sentimental about it, and get on with worrying about what matters and can be controlled.

So how should speed limits be set?

This, of course, is a very difficult question to answer. One thing that is certain is that they should not be set by making them ridiculously low as some kind of catch-all, and they are not at present. The motorway speed limit is not set for foggy, icy, dark conditions when driving an old banger! In the modern world people need to get from place to place quickly, and they have powerful and safe pieces of engineering carefully crafted for them to enable them to do so safely - these are the modern vehicles.

It is ludicrous to think that if a motorway was deemed safe to drive on at 70mph 30 years ago, with the car and road surface technologies of the time, then 70mph is still the appropriate safe speed limit for that same road. It is probably about 130mph to provide a like-for-like level of safety. Now, I'm not advocating a 130mph limit, but splitting the difference at 100mph would not be a bad compromise, and is, after all, the speed that many people drive at today on the motorway when the conditions are suitable to do so.

In towns, the speed limits are 30mph. However, on a narrow shopping street, busy with pedestrians, that is a reckless speed to drive at - you should drive no faster than 20mph, or even slower. On the other hand, that same road late at night, when it is completely deserted, may be safe to drive down at 40 or 50mph.

The answer, of course, comes down individual responsibility, judgement and discretion. Only the person driving the car really knows the safe speed for themself to drive at, since they know the car, the conditions at the time, their own state, etc. Now, modern society will not allow the individual any self-responsibility or accountability. We are all deemed to be too reckless to do the right thing, and must be controlled by supposedly well-meaning officials who tell us what is appropriate behaviour, even though they know nothing about us or our circumstances, and are in the worst position to make that judgement.

Of course, it is as ridiculous as saying "speed kills" or "one death is one too many" to say that "people, given the personal responsibility to do the right thing, will always do the right thing", but it is not as ridiculous as some might think. In general, where people have an upbringing that educates them to do the right thing, the majority of those people will do the right thing.

There are practical factors as well. For example, when anyone drives a car, they don't set out thinking that they are on a mission to kill themselves or to kill others, or to have a crash. They set out on their journey wanting to get from A to B without any accidents or incidents, but probably to get there as quickly as they can. Thus education and training can lead to a majority of drivers on the road driving in a manner suitably safe for the conditions. Indeed, I firmly believe that the huge majority of drivers do already.

We already know that most of them break the speed limits when they feel that they are inappropriately low for the situation, and we also know that they drive slower than the speed limits when there are adverse conditions. Of course they do, as they don't want to have a crash - it is expensive, inconvenient, and someone, including themself, may get injured or killed.

So, perhaps we should do away with speed limits altogether, and rely on people to do the right thing. We can leave the existing speed limit signs up as "guide maximum speeds" or "recommended maximum speeds", but without the force of the law to inflict them. We still have the offence of "driving without due care and attention", which would seem to me to be a perfect match for the phrase "driving at a speed suitable for the conditions", so the police could, once again, rely on human discretion and judgement, to determine whether a driver was driving safely or not in the varying conditions and situations as they vary day to day, hour to hour, on any single given road.

A "grown-up" approach to driving. I can see "do-gooders" and "safety fanatics" flying into a rage and having heart murmurs as they read this, but is it really so outrageous a suggestion? Think about it. How differently would you drive if all speed limits became advisory, rather than enforceable? Not much differently at all, I would guess. Would the number of road deaths go up dramatically? I doubt it.


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