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Would There Be Any Benefit to raising the National Speed Limit?

Since 1967, the national speed limit in the UK has been restricted to 70mph. For some, this is more than enough, but others have regularly called for this to be raised. Modern cars are infinitely more advanced than they were over 50 years ago. From hugely improved safety to the rise of autonomous driving aids such as automatic braking, those calls are getting louder. But why should we consider raising the speed limit? 

Increased productivity

Whether it’s for getting to the office or travelling around the country for meetings, lots of us use the motorway for work. Raising the limit to 80mph, as has been mooted in numerous quarters, would cut down on travel times and increase productivity. It could also allow haulage and delivery firms to operate more efficiently when it comes to fulfilling orders and meeting targets. Approximately 70% of freight in the UK is transported by road, so this could have a major impact on the economy. 

Less strain on police

Policing Britain’s roads is a major operation. Huge amounts of resources are spent on keeping driving speeds in check, and although this would clearly need to continue, fewer people would be inclined to break the law by exceeding a 70mph limit. Plus, there’s the problem of people braking when they see a police car on the side of the motorway. This increases the risk of a collision if the driver behind doesn’t react quickly enough, leading to high-speed accidents. 

Variable speed limits

More and more smart motorways are springing up across the UK, allowing speed limits to be reduced in heavy traffic. This could also work the other way, with drivers allowed to increase their speed when the going’s light and conditions are suitable. For stretches of road that aren’t usually very busy, it wouldn’t be too difficult to put up new signs to signal a rise in the limit for a certain period. 

Could it improve safety?

The initial reaction to a raised limit would be that safety is compromised. Although it’s true that accidents at higher speeds are certainly more dangerous, there are also issues with drivers travelling at different speeds on the motorway. Accidents are often caused by frustrated drivers trying to overtake slower vehicles, and a solution to speed disparity could be to set different limits in each lane. Safety should only improve in the years ahead with the rise of autonomous cars too, while more and more modern cars are equipped with technology that protects us on the motorway. 

People drive faster anyway

Technically, most drivers are law breakers. Lots of us stray over the 70mph limit on a regular basis. However, it’s very unlikely to be prosecuted for driving up to 80mph, making that the unofficial limit in some respects. Indeed, most police forces operate under guidance that gives drivers a buffer of 10% plus 2mph as leeway when it comes to getting a speeding ticket. Applied on the motorway, this means the ‘unspoken’ limit is effectively 79mph already. 

What are the arguments against raising the speed limit?

Of course, there are two sides to consider. Raising the speed limit would be an inherent acknowledgement that slower is not necessarily always safe. This could encourage some drivers to push the limits even more, while there would be a danger that the supposed buffer tempts people to think that travelling up to 90mph becomes more acceptable. 

There are other factors that could have a negative impact, not least concerning the severity of accidents at faster speeds. Fuel consumption also increases with speed, with most cars using between 10% and 20% more juice at 80mph compared to 70mph. Vehicle limits are tested more at higher speeds, which could lead to more breakdowns, while it’s going to be a long time until the UK becomes fully autonomous – if ever. Throw in the increased difficulty of merging into faster traffic and the potential for more congestion when there are bigger gaps between the slowest and fastest drivers, and it seems unlikely that the speed limit will be raised in the foreseeable future.