Cars, bikes, vans and lorries are all safer now than they’ve ever been. So is it time to change the UK national speed limit?
Before 1965, when the government introduced the 70mph speed limit on motorways, you could drive as fast as you liked on them. Although not many people did, because most cars in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s didn’t go very fast. Some did though, and there were some accidents, so on the 22nd December 1965, the 70mph speed limit was introduced as a temporary experiment.
A few years later, in 1967, they decided to implement the 70mph limit on motorways, as well as the 60mph national speed limit on single carriageways.
60mph and 70mph limits were probably fairly appropriate in the ’60s. In fact, 60mph in a car back then would probably have felt quite dangerous, never mind 70mph. You didn’t have air bags or crumple zones, you were probably on old drum brakes and unlikely to have been wearing a seatbelt (the seatbelt law didn’t come in until 1983). So it’s no surprise that plenty of people, according to a recent poll, would prefer to see the speed limit increased. And to be honest, I think I’m one of them.
Everything about vehicles, roads and drivers is a lot safer now than it was 35 years ago. Let’s consider a typical car now, compared to one from the ‘60s. Whilst a modern car ought to be capable of going faster, you can’t really say that makes it any more dangerous, as we’re only allowed to drive them at 70mph anyway. But they’re not only faster, they’re far better handling, with brakes that are much more likely to work adequately in an emergency. And with tyres that are much more likely to grip in that emergency.
So you’re less likely to have a crash in the first place. But if you are to have a crash, you’re in a much safer place than you would have been 35 years ago. You’ll be in a box that’s gone through rigorous safety testing, with a seatbelt, umpteen airbags, crumple zones and all of the other safety features that modern vehicles come with.
And then there are the drivers. In the ‘60s, by all accounts the driving test was a bit of a joke; all you had to do was prove that you could drive, not that you could drive safely. So you would have had people on the road that weren’t very safe drivers, doing 70mph in cars that weren’t safe either.
Whilst there will still be a hangover of poor drivers whom passed their test way back when, at least by now they have the benefit of experience.
It’s a completely different story for new drivers, as anyone who’s passed their test in the last 20 years can attest to. Since 1996 all new drivers have had to pass a theory test, and since 2002 had to pass a hazard perception test as well, before they can even sit their practical driving test. And it’s not that easy. For quite a few years now, the average UK pass rate has hovered around 50%. Now, more than ever, as the UK driving test gets more and more difficult, you have to prove that you are at a reasonable standard of driving before you’re allowed on the road alone. And exactly the same could be said for the UK motorcycle license.
I suppose some could argue that 21st century drivers do have more distractions like mobile phones etc. But at the same time, drink driving isn’t as prevalent as it was; in 1979, 26% of road deaths in the UK were drink-induced, whereas the figures are in the low teens today. Anyway, I digress..
As far as the roads themselves go, whilst I’ll admit that there are a lot more vehicles on them these days, a lot more of them are motorways; one of the safest types of road. Motorways are stretches of tarmac that everyone’s traveling in the same direction on. You never have to deal with oncoming traffic, there are never any tight corners, and there are dozens of signs and arrows at every junction, telling you where you need to be.
So if roads, vehicles and drivers are all much safer now than they were 35 years ago, why can’t the speed limit be increased accordingly?
Well, I don’t think the issue is safety any more, it’s the environment. The faster you drive your vehicle, the more fuel you burn and the more pollutants it kicks out. That’s one of the major reasons that loads of cities and towns are introducing 20mph zones in vast swathes; it’s about more than safety, it’s as much an environmental thing as it is anything else. And with tens of thousands of deaths every year being associated with air pollution (that’s in the UK alone), with global warming running riot and the polar ice caps melting, we maybe should think twice before we make any rash moves where the speed limit’s concerned.
The air-pollution-related-deaths numbers coming out of Germany, where every day, vehicles travel at 100mph+, are quite scary. They’re almost double the UK numbers. That said, there could be many other factors involved and, as we’ve learnt from the Covid pandemic, different countries do tend to count deaths, and the reasons for those deaths, in very different ways.
But when I consider how much more fuel efficient all of our road vehicles are these days, and how little they pollute the air, compared to vehicles of yesteryear, I still think I’d like to see an increase in the speed limit. Even if it’s only 10mph or so. Let us do 80mph on motorways, and 70mph on single carriageways. Cars, bikes, lorries and vans are much, much cleaner than they ever have been. And they are much, much safer than they ever have been; especially compared to 35 years ago. So come on, let’s have another 10mph or so.
Of course there is a slight elephant in the room when it comes to speed limits. Increasing the legal limits would almost certainly reduce the amount of people getting nicked for speeding. And that, of course, would reduce the amount of revenue the government receives from speeding fines. According to the AA, British motorists are spending £600,000 a day on speeding fines. £600,000 a day. That’s one seriously fat cash cow that that I can’t see the government being overly keen on slaughtering.
So whether it’s because they’re trying to save the planet, or safeguard a massive source of income (or a little bit of both), I can’t imagine there will be any speed limit increases in the near future. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they continued to lower them.