The Slower The Better!

A blanket 50 mph speed limit on all roads except dual carriageways and motorways. Another wizard wheeze from the people who know what’s best for the rest of us. The Government seem to have discovered the cause of fatalities on our roads. It’s speeding of course, (and you thought it was crashing.)

So, is this a ground-breakingly original solution to a longstanding problem? Or is it an over simplistic, potentially ineffective response to a far more complex issue? (Like knocking 2.5% off the VAT rate so you’ll rush out and buy a new car despite having lost your job.)

Well, it ticks plenty of boxes politically. It’s easy, it sounds ‘green’, it’s a revenue neutral way of increasing surveillance in rural areas, it says “We care!” and it helps to divert attention away from all the other cock ups. Furthermore, if you argue against it you tend to sound like a hooligan.

But will it work?

Well, no it won’t.

There are so many reasons for this that you couldn’t list them all. But I’ll have a go anyway.

The motivation for this idea (apart from having an excuse to sprinkle the countryside with hi-tech average speed cameras to help the authorities observe and control us – but we won’t go there today,) is the three thousand odd fatalities per year which have been deemed ‘unacceptable’. So the question has to be asked, how many fatalities are acceptable? Two thousand perhaps? Twelve hundred? Six? Is being an acceptable fatality better than being an unacceptable one? I think we need a Government target here.

And of course, if reducing the speed limit is a sure fire way to save lives, shouldn’t we make it 40mph? Or 30mph? Or 10mph. And if not, why not?

The statistics however suggest that only 6-10% of these accidents are caused by speeding, and that includes the ones involving speeds far in excess of any speed limits. So it’s hardly going to make much difference is it?

The statistics themselves are a bit questionable too. For example, let’s say four teenagers pinch a Subaru Impreza (it happens) and start driving it just like they learned to on a Playstation. Traffic laws have no relevance here as they enter a bend going about twice as fast as it’s possible to get around it. They then become participants in a practical demonstration of the complex laws of dynamics, which reveal, unsurprisingly, the difference between computer simulations and real life. Unfortunately, real life has now come to a stop for these boys. So the statistics now include another four fatalities (for just one accident) caused by speeding. Of course, if you like statistics you will know that household accidents far exceed car accidents as a cause of death and injury. Should the government perhaps ban stepladders, or toys with wheels on them? And if preventing deaths is being prioritised may I direst someone’s attention to our over funded, over managed and desperately gruesome NHS?

Of course we need restrictions. There are schools to consider, crossings, junctions and a host of other hazards but no human activity can ever be completely risk free. The overwhelming majority of accidents are not the result of excess speed. They are caused by people making mistakes and misjudgements, or simply not paying attention. Unreasonable restrictions can be counterproductive in many ways. People lose respect for pointless rules and tend to ignore them. Inevitably they will also start to ignore other rules (not necessarily related to motoring), some of which may have a point to them.

What’s missing here is proportionality. Proportionality is important. It’s the reason we don’t pour petrol on litter louts and set them alight. There are roads in North Yorkshire for example where 50mph is ridiculously slow. Equally there are roads in say Cornwall where the same speed would be ridiculously fast. So it’s not going to work then?

Well, it depends how you look at it. It won’t significantly reduce accidents of course, but it will extend the Governments’ surveillance capability, it’s bound to generate income and it helps take the focus of our shockingly inadequate road network. But it will make motoring more inconvenient, more expensive and a little less enjoyable. Which is a pity because the car has liberated people in a way that no other invention ever has.

There are those of course who believe that motoring is a form of transport to be discouraged and the fewer people who enjoy it the better. I think they’re wrong.

The motorcar is one of history’s greatest inventions. It has transformed the way we live and improved our lives immeasurably. It has brought not just freedom and pleasure to millions; it has also brought us wealth, health and given us the means to extend our boundaries both economically and culturally.

Most people can find enjoyment in motoring. It’s about so much more than just transport. And more too than the thrill of the open road, or the enthusiasts delight in complex machinery. It’s about freedom, independence and choice. (Not words you would immediately associate with the current government.)

I’ll finish with a quote from a poem by James E Flecker:

We travel not for trafficking alone.