80mph motorway speed limit – the wrong message, or time for change?

09.41 | 10 October 2019 | | 19 comments

Image: RAC

Eight years since it was last mooted, the issue of raising the motorway speed limit to 80mph has once again surfaced on the political agenda – but what do road safety professionals and other stakeholders think of the idea?

By Edward Seaman
Assistant editor, Road Safety News

Speaking at the Conservative party conference earlier this month, transport secretary Grant Shapps said he is exploring the idea of increasing the limit on motorways and some dual carriageways, according to the Telegraph.

Mr Shapps said when the issue was last reviewed in 2011 ministers decided against increasing the limits due to environmental concerns – an issue which could now be offset by the higher uptake of low-emission cars.

Sending out the wrong message?
The response to Mr Shapps’ comments from stakeholders has been largely negative, as it was in 2011 when a coalition of road safety charities and environmental organisations launched a campaign against the Government plans, labelling them ‘senseless’.

Steve Horton, Road Safety GB director of communications, is concerned that raising the limit will give out the wrong message about speeding.

Steve Horton said: “Road safety professionals have spent decades reminding drivers and riders about the link between speed and severity of collisions and casualties. 

“We have rightly tried to help drivers understand the dramatic increase in stopping distance and the greater demands on response times that even a small increase in speed can have.

“My worry here is that in one move we could undo all of those efforts and allow so minded drivers and riders to turn around and say ‘see, there can’t be a problem with speed if we are raising limits’.”

Similarly, the road safety charity Brake says given that speed is a critical factor in the severity of collisions, any move to increase the limit “is a step in the wrong direction”.

Meanwhile, the RAC says without compelling evidence that a change in the limit would not adversely affect safety, the current limit “should be retained”.

But it’s not all negative
IAM RoadSmart, however, says it would welcome trials of 80mph limits on the “best smart motorways as these high quality routes are specifically designed for high speeds”.

While expressing concern that a lack of enforcement could create tomorrow’s “unofficial 90 mph limit” – it says that modern cars have never been safer.

Neil Greig, IAM RoadSmart director of policy and research, said: “This debate has gone on for far too long so the DfT should make it absolutely clear if it has real plans to increase the limit or not.  

“Once that decision has been made technical work should begin on the feasibility of raising the limit to 80mph on existing and future smart motorways.”

Is there public support?
A poll carried out by Road Safety GB on Twitter suggests the answer is ‘yes’ – with three quarters of those who completed the survey in favour of the move.

Of more than 1,500 respondents, 75% backed increasing the limit to 80mph – compared to 23% who opposed the move, with 2% unsure.

With a General Election on the horizon, David Davies, executive director of PACTS, suggests the move could be a ploy to appease voters.

David Davies said: “The idea to raise UK motorway speed limits to 80mph is regularly touted at party conferences and elections. It is always quietly dropped when the impacts on safety and emissions are assessed.”

But what about speed limits in other countries?
One reason cited by those in favour of 80mph speed limits on motorways in the UK is the equivalent limits in countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Explaining the situation in Holland, IAM RoadSmart’s Neil Greig added: “The limit [in Holland] was increased to 80mph (120kph) several years ago after a comprehensive review of motorway capacity, congestion and safety. 

“The limit was only increased on those sections where the road could cope with it. The vast majority of the busy Dutch motorway network remained unchanged or had variable limits applied to recognise varying traffic conditions throughout the day.”

PACTS points out the differences in the design of motorways here in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

David Davies said: “Some people say that, if these speeds are permitted in France and Germany, why not here? 

“The reality is that UK motorways have more closely spaced junctions and if you permit 80mph many drivers will do 90mph. And France and Germany have worse road safety records.”

How much difference are electric cars making?
One of the reasons cited by Grant Shapps to revisit motorway speed limits is the growth of electric vehicles and the resulting fall in emissions.

While the RAC understands that logic, is says an 80mph speed limit is “fundamentally an issue of safety”.

Nicholas Lyes, RAC head of policy, said: “The transport secretary raises a valid point in relation to the possibility that overall emissions could be lower if a move to an 80mph limit was accompanied by a large increase in the numbers of electric vehicles using these roads.”

“However, any move to raise speed limits on motorways is fundamentally an issue of safety. Part of the problem is that at present, there is a high proportion of drivers that break the 70mph limit, and drive nearer to 80mph. 

“If the speed limit were to be changed to 80mph, there is a risk that the new default becomes even higher.”

In terms of statistics, the number of ultra low emission vehicles (ULEVs) registered for the first time fell by 7% in the second quarter of 2019.

The DfT figures show that 14,811 new ULEVs were registered in the UK between April and June – accounting for 2% of all new registrations.

Looking at fuel type, there was a 39% fall in the number of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles registered – probably as a result of changes to the Government’s plug-in car grant scheme.

The changes, announced in October 2018, mean Category 2 and 3 vehicles – mainly plug-in hybrids – are no longer eligible for a grant.

Grants for Category 1 vehicles – broadly those that are pure battery electric – have been reduced from £4,500 to £3,500.

So are 80mph limits likely?
As was mentioned by David Davies at PACTS, the idea is regularly touted at party conferences and elections – largely because it would be popular among the voting public.

If the Government is genuinely serious, it would likely be met with opposition from road safety professionals who, according to Road Safety GB, have spent decades reminding motorists about the link between speed and severity of collisions and casualties.

As Brake points out, stopping distances at 80mph are over 120m – the equivalent of 30 car lengths – and 6 car lengths more than at 70mph.

A first move could be to trial the limits on modern stretches of motorway – such as smart motorways – although this type of road is already proving controversial, with doubts over safety.

In terms of the environmental debate, with sales of ULEVs appearing to plateau – it may well be a long time before any real benefits are felt.



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Order by Latest first | Oldest first | Highest rated | Lowest rated

    120 kph = 75 mph
    80 mph = 129 kph

    Can’t expect an article on speed limits to get these things right can we….

    robert murphy, shepton mallet
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    Our preferred outcomes for driver improvement might be slightly different David. My idea would be not to train drivers to be able to drive faster, more safely (no point), but simply safer per se at any (legal) speed i.e. defensive driving. I don’t believe it’s given much emphasis in current learner driver training and testing.

    Hugh Jones, Cheshire
    Agree (5) | Disagree (2)

    > If you know of a way to induce the unskilled/unsafe driver to become better by seeking out help, please tell us David! As I said before, those who genuinely need to improve don’t realise their shortcomings and will resist any suggestion to the contrary.

    Well, the easiest way would be with money. It’s the 21st century, everyone’s moaning about how poor they are, about how everyone’s being almost taxed for breathing in air (polluted or otherwise)

    So, let’s formalise advanced driving courses. And formalise the reward too – give a sizeable, tangible monetary benefit that is heavily publicised to those who hold suitable, and in-date advanced driving qualifications. Not just a discretionary scheme that currently gives you a reward worth pennies for wishing to improve your driving skills, if anything at all.

    If I knew I could get say, £300 off of my insurance or vehicle servicing per period of valid advanced driving qualification, I’d happily take part – and I know others certainly would do too

    > I’ve sat in on driver improvement/speed awareness courses for those who have been ‘vilified unnecessarily’ (as you put it) and it is genuinely shocking how little the participants know about driving safely and vehicle control.

    As someone who has attended volunteer driving improvement courses (hey, free skid pan day!) I don’t disagree but I suspect the people I’m referring to in my ‘rant’ might be different to those who you referred to in your comment.

    David Weston, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
    Agree (2) | Disagree (1)

    There seems to be a *massive* assumption behind all of the arguments presented here, that an increase in the motorway speed limit will result in an increase in driving speeds. Have we ever been shown any evidence of that?

    Charles, Wells
    Agree (11) | Disagree (4)

    If you know of a way to induce the unskilled/unsafe driver to become better by seeking out help, please tell us David! As I said before, those who genuinely need to improve don’t realise their shortcomings and will resist any suggestion to the contrary.

    I think the road safety community are more concerned about the driver who DOES feel safe at 75 mph or 80 mph but in fact isn’t, rather than the driver who doesn’t feel safe at these speeds – (why would they be doing these speeds anyway if they don’t feel safe?)

    I’ve sat in on driver improvement/speed awareness courses for those who have been ‘vilified unnecessarily’ (as you put it) and it is genuinely shocking how little the participants know about driving safely and vehicle control.

    Hugh Jones, Cheshire
    Agree (8) | Disagree (1)

    Good one, David. I just wish more thought the way you do.

    Nigel Albright
    Agree (4) | Disagree (3)

    > As for 80 mph being ‘perfectly safe’ – yes it is… in the right hands.

    Excellent. Then why doesn’t the road safety community as one joined, coherent group work together to increase the number of members-of-public who possess these correct sets of “hands”, as opposed to vilify unnecessarily those who already possess the skills to travel at speed safely.

    There are groups out there who are out there, helping to build skills such as these but sadly they are very few and very far between.

    The road safety community shouldn’t just go “no” to this. If a driver does not feel safe doing 75mph or 80mph then they should, by definition, slow down and drive at their own pace.

    Does the community want members of the public to help all of you to reduce road casualties, to reduce reckless behaviour?

    Give them a carrot.

    David Weston, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
    Agree (12) | Disagree (13)

    The last time the Tories muted the increase in speed to 80 at their conference in 2011, in the November of the same year we had the horrific crash at Taunton when 7 people died. The idea to increase the limit was then dropped. Whatever the speed limit, the fact remains the faster the impact speed the worse the consequences. It’s all down to the laws of physics.

    Chris Clayton, Cornwall
    Agree (10) | Disagree (7)

    Surely their stopping distances quoted are wrong in practice? I had no problem stopping in 55 meters from 100mph in a Tesla S in the dry. If the figures quoted are wrong by such an amount where is the credibility?

    Agree (10) | Disagree (6)

    David: I believe the claim that ‘half of all motorway traffic flow exceeding 70 mph’ refers to lane 3 only and not all traffic, across all three lanes.

    As for 80 mph being ‘perfectly safe’ – yes it is…. in the right hands. It’s just that there aren’t enough drivers with the ‘right hands’ behind (or on) the wheel! If there were, there wouldn’t be any collisions and we might not even need speed limits at all. Unsafe drivers don’t know that they’re unsafe, which is why restrictions are needed… to protect themselves and protect others from them.

    Hugh Jones, Cheshire
    Agree (13) | Disagree (5)

    Rod King wrote: ‘t amazes me that anyone connected with road safety use the claim that “modern cars have never been safer” as a justification for negating that benefit by increasing their speed. And whilst a 2 ton SUV may well appear safer for the occupants, the reality is that for everyone outside the SUV then the danger has increased.’

    Interesting, indeed, Rod. I rode in an electric vehicle where the driver engaged both speed control and separation sensor (set at 1.5 sec), which resulted in (a) driver proportionately reducing brain commitment and (b) me feeling very uncomfortable about the separation distance and the driver’s potential reaction time if thing suddenly went very wrong ahead. And because the driver was relying on the sensor, very late and harsh braking in the case of coming up behind a tailback. Not for me, thank you.

    So let’s not get confused between gizmos (part of the race to impress buyers) and so called safety features, most of which are best defined as DAMAGE LIMITATION DEVICES and the parallel and proportionate reduction brain engagement which can leave drivers highly vulnerable – or even more vulnerable – than they normally are

    Nigel Albright
    Agree (21) | Disagree (1)

    I honestly don’t get this.

    What is essentially half of all motorway car or bike traffic flow is recorded exceeding the 70mph motorway limit. A large amoint of people who are in the real world, outside of the road safety bubble, appear to disagree with the 70mph limit.

    What does this say?

    As I’m sure we all know, in the right conditions travelling at 80mph (or 90mph, as some people here have opined) is perfectly safe.

    David Weston, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
    Agree (12) | Disagree (22)

    It’s interesting isn’t it.

    When cars can be electric and therefore polluting less when used (but we are still dependent on fossil fuel generated electricity), the car lobby wants to increase the energy used on motorways by 30% therefore cancelling out any energy savings.

    When cars become safer at 70mph, the car lobby wants to increase speeds on motorways so that braking distance are increased, safe following distances are increased, tunnel vision is increased, vehicle handling and control is challenged more, distance travelled during distraction period is increased, so cancelling out any improvements in safety.

    Is it any wonder that casualty statistics are flat-lining when every reduction in danger is compensated by more traffic, more speed, more distractions, heavier vehicles and greater dependency on motorised vehicles. Meanwhile pedestrians and cyclists feel more and more marginalised.

    It amazes me that anyone connected with road safety use the claim that “modern cars have never been safer” as a justification for negating that benefit by increasing their speed. And whilst a 2 ton SUV may well appear safer for the occupants, the reality is that for everyone outside the SUV then the danger has increased.

    Rod King
    Agree (24) | Disagree (12)

    Perhaps the government could do a deal with the motorists i.e. if motorists made the effort to stop having accidents on M’ways with the current speed limit, for a defined period of time – to prove that they are capable of driving safely for long distances at high speeds – and if successful, they could be ‘rewarded’ by a 10 mph increase in the speed limit at the end of that defined period.

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (4) | Disagree (11)

    And at the same time the Welsh Government is reducing speed limits to cut air pollution https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-49938080

    I’m sure electric vehicles are far less efficient at 80mph than they are at 70mph, too, increasing the needs for power generation from whatever sources can meet the demand.

    Simon Taylor, Nottingham
    Agree (12) | Disagree (7)

    I don’t always agree with BRAKE ideas but in this case I think they are right on the mark. Whilst the discussion generally seems to revolve around the plusses or minuses of speed itself and, interestingly, to what extent we fit with the peer group influence of what is happening in other countries, it is important to remember that a primary effect of speed is that it is a magnifier of errors.
    BRAKE’s point is about space and the ability to pull up in time and if things go wrong on motorways, partly because of the speeds, the situations tend to happen and evolve far more quickly and this catches a lot of people out. As such space and time become critically important. These two elements are your very best friend in terms of safety but you only have to look at the average separation distances on motorways to see how highly vulnerable most drivers and generally very much including HGV drivers (would you believe that yesterday in a 50mph zone and at 50 I had an HGV right on my tail with lights flashing wanting me to go faster?) , are to crashes because they just don’t have the space and therefore the safety zones to give themselves time to react.
    So, baseline, the issue is much more about space than speed itself. And if you travel at higher speeds then space becomes even more important and critical in a pear-shaped scenario.
    Last year the HA made a somewhat feeble attempt to bring the importance of space in terms of safety to the attention of the general public. Well, it might be slightly unfair to lay the blame purely at the HA’s door step because history shows that unless an issue has some bite most drivers will ignore it and carry on with their own agendas So why don’t the police act on the penalty of £100 and 3points on a licence for close following? Considering some 30% (possibly more) of crashes are front to rear end shunts that it self would make a massive difference in terms of road safety, which is really what it is all about.

    Nigel Albright
    Agree (18) | Disagree (4)

    I don’t consider myself to be what some people would describe as a ‘nimby’ but all that will happen is that people will drive above 80, as is the case now with many seeing driving above 70 and see it as ok.

    As David is eluding to, simple physics also mean that there is greater potential for higher speed impacts and more severe injuries.

    How much actual benefit will this give in terms of journey times? I doubt much, but someone will model the transport economics. Given the focus on air quality and vehicle emissions what impact will there be?

    Is this electioneering?

    Nadeem Up North
    Agree (21) | Disagree (4)

    As a person who has passed both the IAM and RoSPA Advanced Car Test, one of only about 100,000 in the country, I am not in favour of increasing the speed limit on motorways to 80mph, as there are many drivers at present using the motorways and other roads in the country who seem intent on ignoring existing speed limits and good road safety practice. As has been indicated many using the motorway at present consider that the 70mph limit allows them to do 80mph. Changing it to 80mph will only gives those drivers that view that they can now do 90mph or even 100mph. And as for the view that because of smart motorways are a reason for upping the speed limit to 80mph is hogwash. I was led to understand that smart motorways were introduced because of congestion, and an incident recently brought one smart motorway to a standstill because a vehicle broke down on what was the hard shoulder. If the speed limit had been 80mph, think what could have been the result.
    I recently watched the programme on TV about the history of the UK Motorways and it clearly showed the reason that the 70mph speed limit was introduced, and that was when there was less vehicles on the road compared to the present day.
    Indeed I am concerned, that with the proliferation of 20mph speed limit around the country, standards of driving will further decline, due to drivers being unused to driving faster for a great part of their driving day. I agree with around schools and other places that children congregate, but not in whole towns. This also creates a problems in some areas for DSA Examiners on Test.
    Until the majority of motorists in the UK obey the rules of the road, there should be no change in the speed limit on Motorways or on some dual carriageways.

    DereK C Donald, Inverness
    Agree (19) | Disagree (3)

    Does the SoS for Transport think this will help Highways England to meet its 40% KSI reduction target – set by (yes) the SoS for Transport? Highways England are already struggling – KSIs on the SRN went up 6% last year.
    More here: http://www.pacts.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/Road-Deaths-and-Serious-Injuries-Across-UK-2018-Breakdown-by-PACTS.pdf

    David Davies
    Agree (22) | Disagree (2)

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