Gavin Strang, the Minister of Transport, told MPs: "Speed contributes to a third of all road accidents. I am concerned to reduce its impact and I shall be considering a range of measures to manage speed, including speed limits."
The 70mph limit has been in force for decades. By reviewing speed limits, Mr Strang could be opening up a Pandora's box, and anxious transport press officers were quick to play down last night suggestions that the 70mph speed limit was likely to be changed.
"We have a new government looking at everything," said a Whitehall source. "But we have no plans to reduce national speed limits."
Mr Strang also ruled out Tory suggestions that the 70mph limit should be increased to 80mph, the l speed followed by many drivers in the fast lane. Many motorists claim the current limit causes bunching, and dangerous tailbacks, and some police forces are reluctant to prosecute for speeding below 80mph on motorways.
However, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, in charge of both the departments of Transport and the Environment, is on record for supporting a reduction in motorway speeds to 50mph at peak times.
Mr Prescott's 1989 plan for reducing the speed limit to deal with congestion anticipated by half a decade the imposition of a variable speed limit on the M25 to reduce congestion at peak times. The review by Mr Strang could widen the use of motorway signals like those on the M25 to force drivers to lower their speeds for safety reasons. At the moment, the motorway signals are normally used for hazards such as fog or accidents.
The 60mph limit on the M25 is seen by many motorists as safer, and less stressful than the speed-and-brake approach to most driving on Britain's overcrowded motorways.
The merging of the two departments under Mr Prescott will also herald moves to make environmental concerns more important in road planning. Reducing speeding may also be seen as a "green" measure to reduce fuel consumption.
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