Standing up to senseless 80mph limits on motorways

Earlier this week it was reported that the government plans to set up trials of 80mph limits on motorways that have variable speed limits in place. The news was welcomed as ‘sensible’ by the AA , which pointed out that these stretches of road are ‘the safest’.

As a charity that supports people whose lives have been devastated by road death and injury, it’s hard for Brake to see how trialing a move predicted to increase casualties, meaning more pain and suffering, can be branded sensible. Especially if the case in favour doesn’t add up, and the trial itself will mean heightened risks for the public.

It’s a relatively small trial being proposed, across 70 miles of motorway, but it’s questionable what value the results will hold, and the fact is the trial itself could cost lives.

There is a wealth of evidence showing rises in traffic speeds cause increases in crash frequency and severity [1]. It’s down to laws of physics: the faster you drive, the less time you have to react to hazards and avoid crashes in the first place, and the harder you hit if you do collide. Because of this, it’s predicted that if we increase the limit to 80mph across the motorway network, it would lead to about 25 more deaths each year and 100 more serious injuries [2]. Not to mention increased fuel consumption and carbon emissions [3].

At the same time, the journey time benefits of 80mph limits in Britain are highly questionable. On our congested motorway network, it’s unlikely they would make journeys significantly quicker, and they could make them take longer because of creating an uneven flow [4]. There will be no journey time benefit for hauliers because trucks are speed limited. Plus, crashes that result from higher speeds will cause further hold-ups.

The government’s trial won’t tell us much about the impact of 80mph limits if implemented across the motorway network, since it’s only taking place on roads with variable limits, which we only have on a very small proportion of our motorways. More variable limits are being introduced in the coming years, and Brake fully supports this: evidence indicates they are an effective way to improve traffic flow and safety (precisely because of lowering speeds at key times).  But rolling out more variable limits costs money, and as the government’s main argument for raising the speed limit is an economic one, this looks suspiciously like a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

What makes even less sense is the argument that 80mph limits are appropriate on motorways with variable limits because these roads are so safe, and much safer than they used to be.  Why, when we have achieved so much progress in preventing horrific crashes and casualties on these roads, would we start to undo that progress, for so little gain?

Despite reductions in casualties in the past decade, it remains that five people are killed and 28 more seriously injured on Britain’s motorways every week [5]. Every one is catastrophic for the families affected, and yet preventable.

That’s why we’re urging the government to abandon its inhumane proposal for 80mph limits, and its senseless and risky trial, and instead set out how it will deliver the social, economic and environmental benefits of improved speed management and safety on these roads.

Sign a petition protesting the government’s proposals for 80mph limits
Read more about Brake’s campaign and the evidence basis

End notes:
[1] New Directions in Speed Management: A Review of Policy, Department for Transport, 2000
[2] Research by Professor Rune Elvik in the Guardian, 25 December 2011
[3] Third Progress Report to Parliament, Committee on Climate Change, 2011
[4] Road Traffic Speed, ninth report, Transport Select Committee, 2002
[5] Reported road casualties Great Britain annual reports 2010, Department for Transport, 2011

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About stopthecarnage

Julie Townsend is campaigns director of Brake, a charity working to stop deaths and reduce carbon emissions on roads, and also working to support families bereaved by sudden deaths such as road deaths.
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