Saturday, July 10, 2004

Why speed?

All right then. By popular demand, let's have a debate. Why don't we all just slow down and keep to the speed limits?

First of all, though, we need to distinguish between motorways and other roads. I have no problem with keeping to sensible speed limits in urban areas and on other roads where there are dangers to other road users, and particularly pedestrians. By and large, I keep to the posted limits on these roads. The issue is the 70 mph motorway speed limit.

So why speed on motorways?

The answer to that is the same reason as to why we travel in cars instead of on horses; why we fly to New York instead of going by Ocean liner and why we have high speed trains instead of puffing billies – to get there faster.

Time spent travelling is time wasted; it is often an unpleasant occupation and largely unproductive. The object is to get from A to B as fast as is possible and safe, in order to get the travelling over with and do something more productive or pleasant – or even indulge in life's little luxuries, like sleep.

But speeding doesn't save much time.

That depends. Under certain (congested) traffic conditions, that is correct. Then it is best to go with the flow. Trying to rush it just adds to the frustration and the danger.

However, when driving long distances very early in the morning, or late at night, when there is little traffic on the road, small increments in speed can save considerable amounts of time.

Over the distance between Bradford and Dover (350 miles) – a trip I used to do once a month, the difference between an average speed of 70 mph and 85 mph is the difference between five hours and just over four. At an average of 95 mph, the time taken is 3 hours 41 minutes.

Putting this another way, leaving Dover at 10 pm driving at 70 mph, you get home at three in the morning. Do it at 95 mph and you're home at 1.41 am, and tucked up in bed a few minutes later.

But speeding is dangerous.

Last year, Italy raised the speed limit on some motorways to 93mph, despite having one of Europe's worst records for accidents. Its transport ministry said the higher speeds improved traffic flow and helped motorists pay attention.

Drive at 70 mph on a near-empty, boring motorway for five hours and you are dead – impaled in the central reservation after falling asleep at the wheel. Do the same journey as fast as conditions will safely allow and you are alert, responsive, and get there hours earlier. Which is safer?

But the law is the law and must be obeyed.

The law should be the servant, not the master. The law, as it applies currently, restricts the freedom of the individual to travel at an appropriate speed, and to make use of modern technology which allows fast travel in relative safety.

Remember, the 70 mph National Speed Limit was introduced as a temporary measure in December 1965 – the reason given was a spate of serious accidents in foggy conditions, but it is often claimed that the MoT had been alarmed by AC Cars testing their latest Cobra on the M1 at speeds up to 180 mph.

It was confirmed as a permanent limit in 1967. At the time, there was little debate, possibly owing to the fact that the average family car of the time could only just exceed 70 mph.

But cars are faster now, better equipped, safer in all respects – and motorways are also better designed and equipped. If there was a safety case in 1965 for restricting the top speed of motor cars to 70 mph, it no longer applies nearly 40 years later. The law as it stands is an unnecessary and unreasonable restriction on the freedom of the individual.

What about energy usage.

Speed limits are not applied on energy saving grounds. However, in 1970 my Hillman Imp used as much petrol on a trip, struggling to 70 mph, as my present car uses at 85 mph.

Over to you.


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