On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the imposition of the 70mph speed limit, Ian Nicholls tells the story of the man who introduced it to the UK, Tom Fraser…
The late 1960s is seen as a hedonistic time when attitudes became more liberal, with homosexuality and abortion being de-criminalised. The London-based intellectual elite, comprising pop stars, writers and broadcasters, wrote an open letter to The Times newspaper advocating the legalisation of cannabis, arguing that it was harmless. This intellectual elite behaved as if legalisation was just around the corner and gave the Police Drug Squad a list of people to raid.
For some people the right to drive fast is a hedonistic pursuit but, for the motorist, the 1960s was a time of increasing restriction. The process started with Ernest Marples, Minister of Transport from 1959 to 1964. Marples introduced traffic wardens, MoT tests, yellow lines and a clamp down on drink driving.
The Conservative Government, of which Marples was a member, was defeated at the polls in October 1964 by the Labour Party led by Harold Wilson. Since 1963, there had been a viral campaign with the slogan ‘Marples Must Go’ – now he had, to be replaced by Harold Wilson’s nominee Tom Fraser, the man who would introduce the 70mph speed limit fifty years ago.
So who was this man who introduced a law that many motorists would like to see amended at the very least? Tom Fraser was born into a socialist family in the mining village of Kirkmuirhill, Scotland, on 18 February 1911. He was the eldest of a family of ten. He soon came to be recognised as a bright boy.
Speaking to Commercial Motor magazine in March 1965, Tom Fraser said: ‘I was a rebel. Right from the start everything combined to make me one. I wanted to be educated, but the higher school was a bike ride away and I had no bike. So I worked part-time in the fields – quite illegally, of course, as I was too young for employment – to save up.
‘And when I at last had enough money it dawned on me that my family could not afford my education. At 14 I had to go out to work to help to support them. Perhaps jealousy and envy are not the best words to describe what I felt in those days, but I seethed with rebellious thoughts about a social system which could not give a promising lad a reasonable chance to be educated.’
He became active in the Trade Union movement at an early age as a background organiser. It was he who got his fellow workmen together and continued to rally them. Tom Fraser was the man who did the patient chores and persisted through difficult days. The fact is that, when he started work in the pit, trades’ unionism was not at a very high ebb in his area.
Employers were against it and even, on occasion, police were called in to hinder its activities. At the age of 27 Fraser was appointed as the first Secretary of the Coalburn branch of the Lanarkshire Miners’ Union. Later he became President. Mining was reserved occupation during the Second World War, so in 1943 Fraser allowed his name to go forward as Labour candidate for the Hamilton constituency of Lanarkshire.
‘I fought hard against this. There were better, more qualified men who, I was convinced, would do a sounder job in Parliament. I had no parliamentary ambitions whatever.’
He won the by-election caused by the death of his predecessor. He soon became Parliamentary Secretary to Hugh Dalton, then President of the Board of Trade. The Labour landslide victory of July 1945 resulted in Tom Fraser being appointed Joint Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Scotland. While holding this office, he worked hard to introduce new industries to Scotland. Fraser was also an enthusiastic gardener.
In 1951, the Labour Party was defeated at the polls and thirteen long years of Conservative rule followed. Labour’s return to power in October 1964 resulted in Tom Fraser becoming Minister of Transport, replacing Ernest Marples. In the election campaign the Labour Party had promised a review of Britain’s transport policy, including the Beeching rail closures.
However, the dawning reality of governmental responsibility and Britain’s virtual bankruptcy caused a rethink. The proposed transport review was off the agenda by March 1965 as officials and advisors at the Ministry of Transport convinced Tom Fraser and Harold Wilson to carry on with business as usual. In 1964, Ernest Marples had approved the closure of 991 miles of railway track. In 1965, Tom Fraser approved the closure of 1071 miles.
In June 1965, Tom Fraser decided not to renew Dr. Richard Beeching’s contract as Chairman of British Railways. Then, in July 1965, Fraser approved the closure of the Varsity line, which was a cross-country line north of London which linked Oxford to Cambridge via Bletchley and Bedford. Closure came to pass on the last day of 1967, with the trackbed between Bedford and Cambridge being obliterated in some areas.
Five decades on, the eventual re-instatement of this route now seems inevitable. It was not even listed in Beeching’s 1963 Reshaping of British Railways report.
It was on 24 November 1965 that Tom Fraser made the announcement that is now remembered as his major contribution to public life in Britain. At the House of Commons, in response to questions from fellow Labour MPs Morris Edelman and Eric Heffer about the need for speed restrictions on motorways in dense fog, Tom Fraser said: ‘I am pressing on with a comprehensive study of signalling systems in order to decide what permanent arrangements we should adopt.
‘For the immediate future, I have decided on two main measures. The first is an ad hoc advisory speed limit of 30mph for temporary application on lengths of motorway where there are serious hazzards such as fog or other specially bad weather conditions. The restricted lengths will be indicated to drivers by vertical pairs of alternately flashing amber lights, placed at one-mile intervals along the motorway and at entry points.
‘They will be switched on and off by the police as conditions warrant. The system will give advance warning to drivers to reduce speed down to no more than 30mph as they approach the hazard. When the hazard area is actually reached, drivers should reduce their speeds still further according to the conditions prevailing. I am planning to have this advisory system on the motorways ready for operation by Christmas.’
‘The arrangements made for the Meteorological Office to pass fog warnings to the police and broadcasting authorities are being extended. The plan is for weather bulletins to give warnings when fog is forecast for motorways. As an entirely new feature, special announcements will be broadcast on radio and television when the warning system is operating on a particular stretch of motorway. I am grateful to the television and radio authorities for their cooperation in this valuable safety measure.’
‘Second, there will be a general speed limit of 70mph on motorways and all other unrestricted roads for an experimental period of four months from Christmas until after Easter. This measure should diminish speed differentials and thus lead to a reduction in accidents. The results achieved will be carefully analysed as the experiment proceeds.’
‘These measures are designed to improve driver discipline on motorways and on other roads throughout the country as a whole. I hope that they will be accepted in this spirit, because safety— first and last — is the inescapable responsibility of every individual driver.’
In response to questions Fraser said: ‘On the question of a speed limit of 70mph, I am bound to remind the House that whenever speed limits have been introduced lives have been saved. This is the experience in this country. This is the experience in the United States with their speed limits on motorways.
‘This is the experience in Germany where they have imposed their upper limit of 62mph on the autobahnen. So I think we owe it to the motoring public of this country to afford them the protection which is afforded to other motorists in other parts of the world.’
At a heated press conference afterwards, Tom Fraser said: ‘I am sorry this experiment has been virtually forced on us by the behaviour of an irresponsible minority of drivers who are a danger both to themselves and to everyone else. But if it is a life-saver it will be worthwhile.’
He also conceded that the concept of an overall speed limit in Britain might become permanent.
Sir William Lyons, Chairman of Jaguar Cars Limited, said: ‘We doubt whether a valid case exists for the imposition of an overall speed limit, either on normal roads or motorways, except under adverse conditions where some form of discipline has been shown to be necessary – providing it can be effectively enforced.’
Jaguar cars were not above using Britain’s burgeoning motorway system for testing the 100mph plus capabilities of their products. Mr Alexander Durie, Director General of the Automobile Association, said: ‘While we do not object to an experimental maximum speed limit, we remain unconvinced on the inconclusive evidence available that a 70mph limit will achieve any worthwhile improvement in road safety.’
It is said that one of the main factors resulting in the 70mph speed limit occurred on 11 June 1964. The press got wind that Jack Sears, who was driving an AC Cobra race car intended for Le Mans, had reached a top speed of 185mph on the M1 during testing.
Jack Sears later said: ‘There was an awful fuss. But it was all jolly unfair. Many teams were using the motorway for practice – the Rootes Group, Jaguar, Aston Martin – so it wasn’t something unheard of. And also, there wasn’t a speed limit at the time. We weren’t doing anything illegal because there were no limits.’
The introduction of the speed limit, which came into force on 22 December 1965, naturally proved unpopular with motorists, once the good weather returned in the spring of 1966. It led to the inevitable protests.
The reality about the situation in November 1965 was that few cars could maintain high speed running above 70mph. Best sellers like the BMC Mini, ADO16 1100 and Ford Cortina were at the upper end of their rev range at such a speed. And that is not taking into account the fact that they would have been noisy and uncomfortable to drive at 70mph by modern standards.
The speed limit only really affected drivers of larger-engined cars, the products of firms like Rover, Jaguar and Triumph. Motor Sport magazine commented: ‘The effects of a universal 70mph speed limit are so far-reaching as to represent near-disaster for this country. To argue against such legislation is difficult, because human life is involved, and had Mr Fraser introduced speed restriction for the winter months of November-February, exempting motorways, one would have seen the reasoning of a non-motoring Transport Minister (we believe Mr Fraser goes to his official duties by train, after getting to the station in an A40).
But to casually announce that from December 22nd to after Easter every road in Britain will be subject to a top speed of 70mph (and 30, 40, 50 or what have you, in many places) is a very different matter. In the first place, it is liable to be so dangerous. Good, safe driving on our congested, inadequate roads calls, above every thing, for concentration. And you cannot concentrate on what is ahead, beside and behind you while glancing every few hundred yards to make sure your speedometer is not registering over 70mph. Again, frustrated drivers are usually bad drivers.’
Motor Sport argued that, as Britain was an exporter of sports cars to the United States, the UK motorway network needed to be speed limit free for testing purposes. For whatever reason, Harold Wilson had decided that Tom Fraser had no future in his Government and, on 23 December 1965, the day after the 70mph speed limit came into force, he fired Fraser and replaced him with Barbara Castle.
Wilson made sure there would be no public backlash against Fraser when his Government had a wafer thin majority, by sacking Fraser just in time for Christmas. With Fraser relegated to the backbenches, the Labour Party handsomely increased its majority at the 1966 General Election.
In February 1967, a poll revealed that 61 per cent of people were in favour of the 70mph speed limit. On 8 June 1967 a report by the Road Research Laboratory said that injury accidents on trunk and class 1 roads were about 3.5 per cent fewer than would be expected without the 70mph limit — a saving of about 25 deaths and 1400 injured.
This proportionately smaller reduction in accidents compared to motorways was attributed to the fact that the limit only had a slight effect on average speeds on these roads.
On motorways, the limit brought a marked reduction in the number of cars travelling at high speeds. The number exceeding 80mph was one-quarter of what it had been before. In clear weather on the 73 miles of the M1, M10, and M45 during the trial period, the accident rate was the lowest recorded and was significantly lower by 10 percent than the average for the previous five years.
The proportion of accidents resulting in injury (49 per cent) was equal to the lowest previously recorded. There was no increase in the number of rear-end collisions or of multi-vehicle accidents. The incidence of skidding in accidents was lower and the decline in the rate of accidents due to burst tyres was continued. The figure of a 20 per cent cut in motorway casualties was freely bandied about.
However, the motoring lobby was unimpressed by this. Lord Chesham, Executive Vice-Chairman of the RAC, said: ‘At first sight it seems that never have so many statistics been compared with so many variables. There are enough red herrings in this report to fill the hold of the largest Grimsby trawler afloat.’
An AA spokesman said he did not believe that a 70mph limit should be continued on motorways, though there was possibly a case for an advisory limit. The Road Research Laboratory’s report had contained far too many variables to prove its case.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which represented all the major British car manufacturers, was on firmer ground when it commented that the case for continuing with the limit was weaker than the report indicated. The alleged reduction of 20 per cent in casualties on motorways was contentious, it claimed, because it was based on hypothetical forecasts.
Barbara Castle decided to make the 70mph limit permanent, though she later confided to one of the owners of AC Cars that Jack Sears’ 185mph M1 adventures did not influence her decision.
Meanwhile, Tom Fraser was offered a better-paid position as head of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. He resigned his Hamilton seat to take up the post resulting in a sensational by-election. The by-election, which took place on 2 November 1967, resulted in the victory of SNP candidate, Winnie Ewing, and ushered in the age of modern Scottish nationalism.
Tom Fraser died on 21 November 1988. He was 77 years old.
The arguments for raising the 70mph speed limit are based on the improvements in car technology over the past five decades. Better crash protection and better brakes. A 2015 RAC survey found that 81 per cent of company car drivers regularly exceed the 70mph limit, compared to 69 per cent of people using their privately owned vehicles.
Jenny Powley, Corporate Business Sales Director at RAC Business, said: ‘When you drive as part of your working day and are running late for meetings, it can be very tempting to break the speed limit. It’s worth reminding drivers that the risks associated with speeding can far outweigh the time saved.
‘After all, driving at 80mph instead of 70mph will only save you six seconds a mile, or ten minutes over 100 miles. It’s also worth considering the impact of speeding on fuel efficiency. According to the Department for Transport, driving at 80mph can use 25 per cent more fuel than driving at 70mph, so this can have a real impact on the business’ bottom line.’
The most recent attempt at looking at raising the 70mph speed limit was instigated by the Coalition Government. Like all previous attempts, it was torpedoed by the safety lobby. No politician wants to raise speed limits if road accident casualties increase, as they will be seen as having blood on their hands in some quarters.
The 70mph speed limit seems to be here to stay…