Back in 2011, the Conservative Government began speaking bullishly about upping the UK motorway speed limit to 80mph. We’ve been limited to (a supposedly temporary) 70mph since 1965, when the best selling cars in the UK were the BMC 1100 and Ford Cortina. I usually tend to keep politics off this website, but this is one time that I actually thought that David Cameron’s party was capable at some level of talking sense.
For me, raising the speed limit is an easy win all round – it brings us into line with the rest of Europe which, apart from a couple of exceptions, seems to have braced the 130km/h (81mph) limit – even the more pedestrian European countries, such as Switzerland and Belgium, are happy with a 120km/h limit, which equates to 75mph – technically illegal in the UK.
I’m far more likely to overlook a driver who’s a little bit over, but is driving correctly…”
– a traffic officer
Of course, in Blighty, we’ve had an unofficial speed limit that’s beyond 70mph for as long as I have been driving and, in many cases, it’s down to the discretion of whatever traffic officer, who happens to see you on the day. As one traffic officer friend of mine told me wryly, ‘I’m not looking at outright speed, but the manner in which a car is being driven – if it’s going 85mph, but is also in the wrong lane, too close or just exhibiting signs of aggressiveness, I’ll give the driver a pull – and know that I’ll have him guaranteed for speeding… at the very least.’
Interestingly, he adds, ‘but I’m far more likely to overlook a driver who’s a little bit over, but is driving correctly.’
While I completely approve of the idea of relying on the traffic officer’s judgment (and he knows far more about driving – and the consequences of what happens when things go wrong than you or me), it also leaves grounds for ambiguity. However, in this day and age, with the liability culture reigning supreme, ambiguity is not good. Plus, when did you last see a traffic officer on the motorway?
What we do have in increasing numbers are managed motorways with speed limit matrix-signs tied-in with speed cameras and the ability at peak times to use the hard shoulder as an additional lane. My experience commuting on the M1, which has been a managed motorway between Bedford and Watford for a couple of years now, is that traffic now flows for more of the time, even during the rush (five) hour(s). Queues now tend to happen if something goes wrong and are less likely simply because of sheer weight of traffic.
Yes, it’s a bit of a chore for those who like to think for themselves and drive to the prevailing conditions, but needs must – and, unfortunately, most drivers do need to be explicitly told what to do.
That said, if these managed motorways can be expanded further, why not open up the speed limit during quieter periods on these routes? Why should we not see ’80’ on those gantry signs at certain times? Modern cars brake infinitely better than their predecessors and are certainly more stable on motorways. And, yes, although we have more cars on the roads, we’re more capable of running faster and closer than ever before. With a zero-tolerance 80mph limit, which is rigorously enforced, I’m certainly convinced that by losing those grounds for ambiguity, while allowing those with the need to crack on, the motorways will be far more useful for all. Once we can sort out lane discipline, tailgating, indicating, etc., etc…
On that proviso, I’d go further by suggesting that, when the NSL sign – the circle with a diagonal stripe through it – appears on those gantry signs, it has the same meaning as in Germany. That is, derestricted. There are times and conditions when going considerably faster than 80mph is perfectly safe – and our friends across the Channel have proved that. Yes, they’re more disciplined on the motorways and the TÜV test is tougher than or MoT, but what a great benefit. I can wish…
Of course, it isn’t just motorways where limits need review. Single-carriageway A-roads are currently being choked by HGVs that – legally – are unable to drive faster than 40mph. Why is this so? The rest of Europe has set the HGV limit on similar roads between 80-90km/h (50-56mph), so why do we have to drag along at 1940s speed levels?
The Government will tell you that the HGV limit has been set at 40mph since the 1960s, and that its continued enforcement is in the interests of safety and fuel consumption – but it’s almost universally detested. And rightly so… The Freight Industry is behind a DfT review of this antediluvian speed limit (which was widely ignored until the mid-2000s, when tight enforcement was introduced) for England and Wales, and certainly support it being raised to a more sensible level. I know from my own experience on the roads is that, with lorries lumbering along the road at 40mph, car drivers are taking risks to get past – whereas, when lorries were driving along at 56mph, far fewer drivers would risk life and limb on the wrong side of the road.
I could go on – as I do think we have lots to learn from Europe on so many aspects of speed enforcement, but the two most pressing issues, the motorway limit and 40mph HGVs are enough to make my blood boil…
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.