The Trouble with Speed Limits

I was going to write about a completely unrelated subject for this article but then with the announcement that the Government were going to permit local authorities to set their own local speed limits, I felt the need to voice something of an opinion.

You see, I sort of have a bee in my bonnet about the application of speed limits and have been rather quietly campaigning for a far more intelligent approach to them for many years now.

And when I say many years, I mean at least ten. Anyway, I'm digressing slightly from the normal hints and tips that I offer through these columns because it's very well past the time when genuinely informed debate took place with regard to the setting of speed limits on various road types.

There are two fundamental points that I'm using this article to address and argue. The first is that many speed limits on public roads are fundamentally wrong and flawed in their conception and the second is that local authorities cannot and most certainly do not have the expertise to be able to set speed limits that will eventually lead to a measurable reduction in serious injury accidents.

What I mean by the first point is that for perhaps fifty percent of the driving population, speed limits are actually perceived as being speed targets (and that's among those who are even aware of what the existing limits are - it's probably far fewer than you'd imagine). They are seen as speeds to be achieved rather than marking the ceiling for a safe speed. There are of course also those drivers who treat all speed limits with disdain and quite often this attitude is fostered because drivers haven't been educated (or worked out for themselves) what the real purpose and relevance of the limits are. In fact, there is a case for suggesting that the current rather limited range of speed limits takes away some drivers' responsibility for driving at an appropriate speed. It could be therefore that by for example changing all national speed limit areas (on single carriageway, rural roads) as has been mooted to 40 mph zones, would further reduce drivers' involvement in the driving task, pander to the lowest common denominator and create a nation of driving automatons.

And this at a time when, as referred to elsewhere, the car manufacturers themselves have picked up the baton of active vehicle and driver safety to the extent whereby even quite inexpensive cars are now fitted with highly sophisticated anti-collision technologies.

So, the case for the prosecution is this: that step-by-step, year-on-year, drivers are being treated increasingly as idiots. The result is that they take less care about their driving, drive without thinking (or, in the case of young drivers particularly, buck against the rules of the system) and are lulled into thinking that all is well with the world. Hardly intelligent.

So, to my second point. How are local authorities supposed to be able to set speed limits on roads when they don't, on the whole, have any expertise in the environment they are charged with managing?

Anyone who gets around the country a bit cannot fail to have noticed how inconsistent the driver safety messages are from one area or county to another. Sometimes there are warning signs, sometimes there aren't. Sometimes speed limits are understandable, often they aren't.

You can imagine the conversations that will take place at the many gatherings of council types as a result of the Government's proposition: Bloke from Surrey says: " We've had a 40 limit between villages for 15 years and it's worked wonders! Of course we still get the kids wrapping themselves round trees on a Saturday evening but the number of tractor-related collisions has reduced by almost 3%". So, the chap from Cumbria goes back to his tribe and says: "We should have a blanket 40 limit on all rural roads - and now we have the power to do it, we will."

Meantime, drivers (being people) will still crash, get bored, frustrated and run into wildlife and other road users. Whether they are travelling at 40 or 60. And those with disdain in their hearts and an undue belief in the abilities of their cars to get them out of trouble will be none the wiser.

Indeed, for the first year in nearly a decade, 2011 saw a rise in the number of KSI (killed and seriously injured) on UK roads. It has been argued, in my opinion correctly, that this rise is in part, at least, due to the fact that much road safety 'policy' has already been devolved to local authorities. There's a distinct lack of nationwide road safety initiatives.

So, also not very intelligent.

What is the bright answer?

Speed limits that drivers understand and engage with: Truly variable ones and ones which reflect joined-up, national road safety policy.

Interaction is key these days - albeit largely electronically - but drivers cannot and do not interact with speed limits. They are there to be obeyed (or aimed for) or totally disregarded. They are, with young drivers particularly but not by any means exclusively, to be played with; to take risks with; to expect punishment for if they are exceeded and policed adequately.; which they rarely are.

The technology exists, albeit in other applications, for speed limits to be 'intelligent'. Imagine a national system or network of speed limit signs that automatically react to influencers such as: time of day, weather and road conditions, visibility; traffic density; prevailing speed of vehicles and a few other variables. In other words the speed limits reflected the level of risk. In fact, the speed limit would take into account all those factors that drivers should but seem unable to do in order to drive at appropriate speeds. IT perhaps in one of its most useful settings and bringing speed limit management into a new era?

For example, let's take a relatively low traffic density rural village. It's a sunny Sunday afternoon with excellent visibility and very few road users around. 40 mph may be a totally safe speed at which to drive through the village. Take the same village: it's a Tuesday afternoon and the primary school is just disgorging its pupils into the arms of the waiting mums. It's November, it's raining and visibility is poor - 15 mph is now probably an absolute safe maximum.

It stands to reason that if drivers can see that limits are directly linked to levels of risk, they will have more respect for them. For example, it's undeniable that drivers do tend to react to signs which flash up their own speed and 20 mph zones around schools tend to be observed - provided the reason for the lower limit is made plain. Where it isn't, it will probably have the opposite effect - that is that drivers will ignore speed limits that appear to them to be arbitrary.

However, if you create efficient and credible technology then couple the technology to a more effective and robust speed detection, fine/penalty system, you'll end up with a national standard, a 'culture change' regarding speeding by drivers and an improved revenue stream from offenders.

In addition the investment in setting up such a national infrastructure would be financed, in part at least, from greater fine revenue. It would also show that central government was capable of initiating a truly cohesive, national road safety policy. It's a very long time since there has been something truly innovative in the field of road safety. Something world-class and something that could change drivers' attitudes to speed for generations.

In other words, build drivers' trust and belief in speed limits - don't force them to disrespect them even more than they already do.

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