Revving up for a row: Islanders are fuming over Manx speed limit proposal

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The Independent Online

The impulse to race along the Isle of Man's Mountain Road is virtually irresistible. For four days each year, the 15-mile road linking Douglas and Ramsay provides one of the most thrilling sections of the island's TT motorcycle race and for the rest of the time it is an open invitation to drive just like the professionals do, in bikes or cars.

The impulse to race along the Isle of Man's Mountain Road is virtually irresistible. For four days each year, the 15-mile road linking Douglas and Ramsay provides one of the most thrilling sections of the island's TT motorcycle race and for the rest of the time it is an open invitation to drive just like the professionals do, in bikes or cars.

For those ill-equipped to tear around legendary TT bends like Hairpin, Bungalow and Creg-ny-Baa, an outline of their contours is provided in large, simple, orange signs placed helpfully at the roadside. Motorcycle News marker posts are also in place all year round, along with chevrons on every stretch of pavement, mountain-top memorials to speed merchants like Joey Dunlop and Jimmy Guthrie and - the pièce de résistance - a Grand Prix-style finishing line bearing the words "Isle of Man: Racing capital of the world".

With such high-speed pleasures on offer, it is little wonder that the island has found itself in turmoil over one of the most contentious pieces of legislation that the Manx parliament, the Tynwald, has ever proposed - a national speed limit.

With the exception of some controlled zones around town, the island is one of the few - and possibly the only - place in the world with no limit. This enables the island to rake in millions in TT-related tourism revenue. It has also engendered a local obsession with fast cars and bikes. One in nine islanders owns a motorbike, against one in 49 in the UK as a whole.

But, with the exception of its forthcoming zero corporation-tax off-shore investment regime, the island is not well known for its liberalism. It didn't abolish the birch until 1993, and the Transport minister, John Shimmin, is keen to tighten up on speed.

He is proposing a 70mph cap on the Mountain Road and tapered limits of between 60 and 40mph on the island's other unregulated highways, along with changes to other motoring laws which seem out of kilter with the mainland - raising the minimum driving age from 16 to 17, for instance, and making MOTs compulsory.

The plans are accompanied by analysis of fatal road injuries which shows 112 people have been killed since 1993 and 24 in the past 15 months alone. These numbers exclude fatalities in TT week, which have remained high.

The plans have provoked outrage in some quarters. A poll by the local Isle of Man Examinershowed 82 per cent of islanders (2,470 people) were against a general 60mph limit. The result made the newspaper's decision to reverse years of opposition to the idea of a speed limit seem a brave one.

A spate of road tragedies, including the crash of a Renault Clio last month which left two 17-year-old boys dead and a 17-year-old girl critically injured, has contributed to the paper's stance. "Crashes are happening two a month," said the paper's Philip Thompson. "The double fatal didn't get that much coverage in the same way that a street robbery or mugging is no exceptional event in Manchester or London. People are coming over who want to emulate their heroes but don't know the roads."

The island's police force agrees, citing another accident in the past six months on the bend where the 17-year-olds died. "The problems are exacerbated by the fact that all our roads are small country roads. We've no dual carriageways," said Inspector Peter Young.

But if the island uses a speed limit to tackle the problem, it risks losing a fortune. A study by the Isle of Man International Business School has established that the speed image is the island's biggest attraction. TT week alone brings in around 40,000 visitors and £7m.

In its own poll on the issue, Motorcycle News established that 80 per cent of its readers would not visit the TT if a speed limit existed. (A compromise solution of lifting the limit during TT fortnight has been discounted by many, for fear that islanders would go wild in the limited racing time available.)

The resistance movement is spearheaded by Peter Duke, who runs a motor-racing video distribution firm from Douglas, is the grandson of six times TT winner Geoff Duke, and believes the island is being "sucked along by English political correctness."

He said: "As an island we are in the motorsport tourism business. The answer lies in better educating people on this island to drive. Those who've never left the place don't know what driving on a motorway is like. There should be training of probationary motorists on how to drive above 30mph."

The Tynwald has invited public debate of the issue before its Council of Ministers vote on the issue. Mr Shimmin is confident that the potential unpopularity of a speed ban does not constitute a political risk to him. The former teacher included the proposal in his manifesto when he was elected two years ago.

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