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article imageOp-Ed: Should the speed limit be raised to 80mph?

By Alexander Baron     Oct 2, 2011 in World
Safety campaigners are warning that the proposed raising of the motorway speed limit to 80mph will result in both more accidents and more road deaths. There is though another view.
Reports of the proposed increase/consultation can be found on numerous websites, including the BBC.
Here are two surprising statistics, surprising in their chronology: the first is extracted from Whitaker's Almanack, 1933, page 653; the second from the BBC News website, June 30, 2005, in an article Road death toll hits record low:
In 1931, there were 1,342 deaths from street accidents in London, and in 1930 there were 6,317 such deaths in England and Wales.
“The number of people dying on UK roads fell to 3,221 last year - the lowest since records began in 1926.”
Yes, you got that right, in 1930, when the population of the UK was around half of what it is today, and when private cars were relatively rare – certainly few ordinary working people owned one – at that time, when the roads were relatively empty, there were nearly twice as many deaths as 74 years later.
Still with the BBC, and on June 25, 2009, this august organisation wrote in UK road deaths reach record low:
“There were 2,538 people killed on Britain's roads in 2008, which is the lowest annual total since records began in 1926.”
And again, last year, June 24, under UK road deaths fall to record low:
“Some 2,222 people were killed on Britain's roads in 2009, 12% down on the 2008 figure and the lowest annual total since records began in 1926.”
Getting to sound a bit repetitive, isn’t it? The highest recorded post-war annual total was said to be nearly 8,000, in 1966. That is a shocking anomaly; one can but wonder from whence it came.
The above statistics have been criticised as failing to show the true picture because they do not include figures for injured or seriously injured, but this is extraordinarily good news, although one death is one too many, as the saying goes. But is it?
One certain way to reduce these statistics to zero or near zero would be to reduce the speed limit to 5mph, except for emergency vehicles. After all, no one could possibly be killed or injured by traffic moving at that speed, even if some reckless people did drive at double the limit.
Most people would think anyone advocating a 5mph speed limit must be barmy, but clearly the only alternative is faster traffic and more deaths, so the inference is that, regretable though even one death may be, the overwhelming majority of the public – drivers and non-drivers alike – consider the deaths of hundreds or even thousands of innocent people every year – and injuries to many more – an acceptable price to pay for getting from A to B in a reasonable time. Put that way, it sounds shocking.
In 1985, University College of London academic John Adams published RISK and freedom: The record of road safety regulation, a book that had some surprising revelations and some equally alarming conclusions. On the front cover is a cartoon of a man and woman on a motorbike. They are naked apart from crash helmets.
Most road users take deliberate risks is the first major premise of the book, and the revelation that “People born before the Second World War sometimes look back nostalgically to the time of their youth when it was safe for children to play in the streets. The memory is flawed.” We have already noted this, but to give it a child’s eye view:
Between 1927 and 1982, vehicles had increased tenfold and the population by 25% yet in 1982, 413 children under 15 in England and Wales were killed on the roads while in 1927, there were 1,067!
There are similar figures for the USA.
Driving is, says the author, one of the most highly regulated activities on Earth.
Ten years later, he published another book on the same subject called simply Risk, wherein it is noted that in Sweden in September 1967, the law was changed and overnight people switched from driving on the left to driving on the right. Motorist and pedestrian had to swerve or jump in the opposite direction in emergencies. The accident rate plummeted. “By October, people had begun to recover their nerve, and by November they were back to their normal...rate of killing each other.”
If all cars were made of cardboard, had insufficient brakes, and the roads were paved with Teflon, there would actually be a decrease in fatalities! How does he work that out?
The reason is simple, as he said before, most people take deliberate risks, not just driving but in many facets of their lives. They want to take risks, but they don’t want accidents. A woman who is driving with a car full of kids will instinctively drive more cautiously than the same woman on her own; a farmer transporting a crateful of eggs will drive much more cautiously than the same farmer transporting a vanload of milk churns.
Now how does this relate to motorways? The two main causes of road accidents are turning right carelessly, and driving too fast under all the circumstances. Although it may not be desirable, it is clearly safer for a driver to clock up 100mph or even 120mph on a deserted motorway, say at 5am in high Summer, than to drive at 40 or even at times 20mph down a busy backstreet. People automatically adjust to their situation, and drive as quickly or as cautiously as they see fit.
One organisation that is extremely skeptical of laws that attempt to regulate driving is Choice In Personal Safety; the view of CIPS is that devices such as safety belts and airbags do not prevent accidents, they simply allow people to crash in greater comfort.
Speed limits are one aspect of this safer driving regulation; the logical conclusion from the research of both CIPS and John Adams is that raising the speed limit to 80mph or even 100mph would not impact seriously on safety. The reason there were so many road deaths in the 1920s in comparison with today is that both drivers and pedestrians have got smarter. It may be that this logic is faulty, and that raising the motorway speed limit does result in more deaths rather than either fewer or no significant change, but genuine concerns for road safety should not give way to alarmism; there are far more serious causes of death on the roads than speeding up the M1 that the authorities should concentrate on attacking, in particular driving under the influence, and driving while using a handheld mobile phone.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Driving, motorways, Speeding, Road deaths, john adams
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