Blog: Dave LeggettNeed for speed?

Dave Leggett | 7 March 2011

I note that the Spanish have today had their speed limit on major highways reduced from 120 kmh (75 mph) to 110 kmh (68 mph). The idea is to save fuel and has been devised in response to the oil price spike. 

It's a contrast with recent remarks by the UK Transport Secretary Philip Hammond who suggested that the speed limit on British motorways should perhaps be raised from 70 mph to 80 mph to shorten journey times and make us all more efficient. Hammond also suggested that safety should not necessarily be the first priority when looking at the criteria for setting speed limits. I'm not sure I agree with him on that. Most people would probably prefer that safety gets priority every time over some theoretical national productivity gain (which I for one am sceptical about).

But even more importantly, we already have a de facto 80 mph speed limit in this country. The traffic police and the speed cameras, everyone knows, routinely ignore 80 mph speeding unless it's dangerous for some reason. In fact, you'd be unlucky to get a ticket doing a little over 80 in fine weather and light traffic conditions. But raise the official speed limit to 80 and you'll probably have more people doing 90 - human nature. That's not a particularly good scenario from a safety point of view and it will also mean the country's oil consumption - and imports - goes up.

Mr Hammond has probably been a victim of unfortunate timing with his comments. Maybe he saw something that would be popular with motorists. However, recent oil price trends mean the pressure on speed limits will be building in the other direction. If the price of oil goes up in a big way (£2 a litre at the pump - it's £1.30ish at the mo - seems to be a headline/threshold number that people are latching on to when discussing this subject) then the pressure will certainly be building for a speed limit reduction on national economic grounds.

In reality, most drivers are much less worried about speed limits than they are about the recent sharp acceleration in the cost of filling the tank. But I guess a big reduction in road or fuel tax is way too much too ask for...

Mr Hammond, meanwhile, would probably be wise to stay silent on the subject until we know where the oil price is likely to settle. If he wants to cosy up to the hard pressed motorist, there's always the 1p tax duty 'cut' caused by not implementing the fuel duty accelerator that the last totally out of touch administration thought was a good idea. It's not something that many people will even notice, but it's a step in the right direction I suppose. Unfortunately, transport isn't exactly a policy area in this country that has had the right attention, not just now, but over the past decades...

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