Gavin Green on Britain's antiquated speed limits

Published: 05 October 2011

I got overtaken by a very beautiful sapphire blue McLaren MP4-12C last Sunday. Near-empty M4, the sun was shining and the McLaren was doing about 90, maybe a touch more, gliding majestically down lane three. That 12C was so far within its limits that it reminded me of Lewis Hamilton cruising behind a pace car.

With the proposed new 80mph speed limit, that man (it may have been a woman?) and his Mac would have been breaking the limit and, according to the stark thinking of law enforcement, ‘driving dangerously’. Except of course, they weren’t.

In my 30 years of driving in the UK, the police have only stopped me once. It was on the M25, 6am, almost empty road, good weather, about 20 years ago. I was driving a then-new Lotus Esprit Turbo, the big Pirellis thrumming on the blackstuff as the speedometer hovered just below 90. The policeman gave me a warning, accepted I had not been driving dangerously, and wished me a pleasant day. I have had a (mostly) high regard for British traffic police ever since.

The furore over an 80 limit

Plans to raise the speed limit to 80, predictably, have created a furore. It’s been discussed on Question Time, debated on the Today programme, and debased on many discussion forums. It’s one of the few – perhaps only – motoring issues that excites as much passion from non-drivers as it does from motorists. It mixes safety and the environment, subjects that inevitably get the chattering classes achattering, the Moaning Minnies moaning, the anarchists active, the ratbags rabid and fast drivers fervid.

It is, I believe, broadly a good idea. Just as dropping the speed limit to 20 on all small residential roads would be right. And so would standardising limits on urban dual carriageways and trunk roads. Currently, these limits may be 30, 40, 50, 60 or 70, often with no rhyme nor reason. Such uncertainty makes them perfect hunting grounds for Gatso guns.

Further observations: it won’t make much – if any – difference to actual motorway speeds. Most people already do 80, the defacto limit. We drive, on motorways, at speeds we find comfortable. Besides, there is no obligation to do 80. If you’re comfortable at 70, stick with it.

The only real driving offence should be dangerous driving

But this debate avoids the big issue. The one and only driving offence should be dangerous driving – that might reasonably cause death or injury to other road users including pedestrians. If a motorist is not driving dangerously – such as the man in his Mac on the sunny M4 – then he (or she) is not committing a crime. 80 was perfectly safe for him (so was 90). But it’s not safe for an 18-year old in a W-reg Corsa running on old tyres. Or for a family of five in a minicab MPV, luggage piled high, driver semi-tuned to the satnav. Or for many overladen SUVs or under-engined superminis.

For now, we are probably stuck with blanket limits, and on balance the motorway limit should sensibly shift to 80, bringing us into line with most of mainland Europe. But moving forward, we need more fluidity on motorways and major trunk roads, such as will surely soon be available with electronic detection capable of remotely differentiating drivers and cars. The skill of the driver (determined by his/her level of qualification and training), the capability of the car (done perhaps on performance bands), the weather, the traffic: they all predetermine a safe level of speed far more accurately than a fixed limit, as inflexible as it is uninfringeable.

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience