Motoring: Making nonsense of our limitations

The latest Department of Transport campaign - and it's a campaign, not a policy, for as everyone knows Britain has no transport policy - is to persuade motorists that speeding is as socially unacceptable as drink-driving.

Thus the police have launched a crackdown on those who drive quickly on motorways, on urban dual carriageways, on small country roads and in the city. The Gatso cameras are set to proliferate. (We're told they're saving lives, although the road toll is rising again after many years of decline.) Other hi-tech aids, such as lasers and electronic tagging, may also be used in the battle to slow Britain down.

The DoT's campaign raises all sorts of questions. Is it really credible to suggest that the driver of a newish car, doing 80mph on the M1 in good weather, is as much a menace as one with 10 pints inside him? Is it right for the police to launch a blitz on drivers who, by world standards, are inordinately law abiding and responsible? Besides, whenever the police have a speeding blitz, they know, and we know, that the exercise is as much about increasing revenue as boosting public safety. Look where they locate the Gatsos. They're invariably on (safe) urban dual carriageways where the limit is too low, not in accident black spots or on narrow residential roads where speed really can kill.

One of the reasons why the police will raise lots of fast money in their new blitz is that our limits are so confusing. You are allowed to drive down a narrow residential road, lined with parked cars and playful children and frolicking dogs, at 30mph; you are only allowed to do just over double that speed on wide, six-lane roads, ringed by crash barriers, and with no traffic coming the other way. Most people go more slowly than 30mph down narrow side streets, and drive at more than 70mph on motorways. They know when they are driving dangerously, and when they are not.

There should be a set limit on dual carriageways in urban areas, but there is not. On some sections it is 30, in others 70; it can also be 40, 50 or 60.

In one of its previous campaigns (again, it wasn't a policy because it did nothing to bring about a change in the law), the DoT encouraged us to drive at 20mph in town. Hit a child at 20 and it will probably survive, but at 30 it won't - that was the gist of the message.

So why not reduce the urban speed limit from 30 to 20, except on dual carriageways? It would be easy, and it would save more lives than endless electronic spying on motorways or main roads. It would also greatly reduce traffic noise, which rises exponentially with speed and is one of the banes of city life. And it would cut urban pollution.

And why not standardise all urban dual-carriageway limits at 40mph, with big warnings and flashing lights when you're about to come up to a set of traffic lights?

Finally, the DoT should raise the speed limit on motorways. Various experts have been calling for an increase ever since the 70mph restriction was introduced as a 'temporary' measure in 1966 (before that, there was no motorway limit at all). It became permanent a year later.

The 70mph limit began in the era of the sluggish Ford Cortina, slippery cross-ply tyres, feeble drum brakes and cars that crushed like soup tins when they hit anything. We now have cars that brake in roughly 60 per cent of the distance of an early Cortina; have much better tyres; are much more refined and easier to drive at speed; and are much safer if they do hit something. Our fastest roads, the motorways, are easily the safest: speeds have risen, and the density of traffic has increased, but the accident rate has dropped - which proves that the bald statement 'speed kills' is a nonsense. (Speed kills when you speed in an inappropriate place, such as a residential road.) Drivers and their cars have changed but, as so often happens in Britain, the law hasn't.

The Association of Chief Police Officers wanted the motorway limit raised to 80mph a couple of years back, before suddenly losing its nerve, presumably because most PCs (police constables) are now being told to be very PC (politically correct). Fortunately, the rank- and-file traffic cop still turns a blind eye to the 80-somethings.

Once upon a time, those former friends of the motorist, the AA and RAC, also made the right noises - before they too decided it was easier to stick to the status quo than actually serve drivers' interests. On the other hand, the Institute of Advanced Motorists has recently joined the 'go 80' campaign.

In most comparable European countries, the motorway speed limit is 82mph (130km/hr) - except in Germany, where there is no limit at all. In a recent German experiment, some stretches of autobahn were restricted, but there was no drop in the number of accidents. The unrestricted German autobahns are 11 per cent safer than American freeways, which have a 55mph limit. And this despite the fact that German motorways are much more crowded, and usually have two lanes in each direction rather than three.

Although most of us drive at 80mph on the motorway, the limit probably won't be increased in the forseeable future. The will to change just isn't there. So we average motorists will just have to remain socially irresponsible reprobates on the motorway, and try not to get too frustrated as we see law-abiding drivers whizz down narrow suburban roads at 30mph only feet away from our children.

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