Monday, 9 March 2009

Speed limits on country roads.

There has been talk (Daily Record and elsewhere) about the Government reducing the National Speed Limit from 60 MPH to 50 MPH on country roads. The argument is that two-thirds of all road deaths occur on country roads, so reducing the speed limit will save lives.

Now, I think that whilst the aim is laudable, the concept as a whole is bad. I do not believe myself to be a speed freak - I have never had a speeding ticket, and besides, I drive an automatic (hardly known to be popular amongst boy racers). I should be in favour of this, but I am not.


Well, firstly, it punishes everyone for the failures and law-breaking of a few. You could lower the speed limit to 30MPH and there will still be some idiots who drive dangerously. What is the next step after this; banning people from driving just in case they may cause an accident?

Secondly, it is not necessarily speed that causes crashes, but bad driving. As a walker, I have seen quite a few examples of bad driving, and not all of them were related to speed. Overtaking in dangerous situations is a common example, and you do not have to exceed the speed limit to do that.

Thirdly, why 50 MPH? Why not 55MPH? or 40MPH? Has a study been made to show that 50MPH is the ideal compromise speed, or has the figure (as I think likely) been plucked out of thin air? Addtionally, the old adage 'drive according to the road conditions' will remain true. A road on which 60 MPH is perfectly feasible in dry weather may be undrivable at 30MPH in bad weather. Lowering the speed limit will not alter this fact.

Many places have 40MPH speed limits - near where I live is the New Forest, and many roads crossing this area have blanket 40MPH limits. This is mainly because of the animals that graze close to the unfenced roadsides. It is a logical and acceptable compromise. However, a blanket reduction throughout the country is stupid. What we need are speed limits that suit the qualities of the road, not a reduction 'just in case', irrespective of road conditions.

If we are going to go down this road, then the Government need to mandate in-car electronic aids for drivers. Every driver knows how easy it is to let your speed drift 5-to-10 MPH over the speed limit; just a slight incline can do this. Why not make speed limiters compulsory in cars, except for a brief period (say one minute every five minutes) where the speed can increase over this, to ease overtaking. Lorries already have speed limiters. Note that the figures are all off the top of my head; there would need to be studies to set the true figures.

Alternatively, manual speed limiters (in a similar form to cruise control) could be compulsory added to all cars. There has been talk of the EU legislating for in-car black boxes, and I would like to see this sort of functionality added to the black boxes if necessary. This means that, in the case of an accident, it could be seen if the driver had the speed limiter enabled at the time. As my car is an automatic, there is absolutely no reason why there could not be a speed limiter or cruise control. Yet there is not. They have given me a flappy-paddle semi-automatic gearbox (pointless in a Honda Jazz), but not something as useful as cruise control.

This whole area is very complex, with some very strong opinions on either side. To some, any action that can prevent road deaths is acceptable. To others, driving is a freedom. Unfortunately, I think that the ideal lies between these two viewpoints. And nowadays, carefully applied technology could be of help.

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