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.