Alan Judd

Motoring: Question of speed

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I should have used the Discovery 3 to tow an ancient and heavy horse-trailer loaded with well over a ton of logs. Its V6 direct-injection diesel, with plenty of low-end torque, would have smiled; in low ratio first, on rough ground, it pulls it on tickover. But I felt it was time the 39-year-old Series 3 Land Rover — 2,286cc petrol, straight four — had a run-out.

All went swimmingly — if snails can swim — until the last hill before home, half a mile of steeply ascending bends. I had hoped to do it in second — the queue behind already stretched out of sight — but by the last bend that valiant old engine was losing breath. I’d have to get down to first and that, as anyone familiar with Series Land Rovers will know, usually means stopping because there’s no synchromesh to slot you into bottom gear.  Even then, would it pull away again on that uncompromising gradient? Or would I have to go down to low ratio? If it came to that they’d be announcing the queue behind me on the Six O’clock News. But those hours long ago spent learning to drive across fields in old Bedfords (old even then) were not wasted. Double declutching, like riding a bike, stays with you. Leaking master cylinder notwithstanding, the old lady slipped sweetly into first without stopping and we chugged onwards and upwards.

The slow climb gave time to ponder, between glimpses of my embarrassing tail in the wing mirror, the sense and nonsense of raising the motorway speed limit to 80mph.  It’s something of each, of course. The nonsense is to suggest it will help the economy; it won’t, although by increasing fuel consumption it will increase tax revenue. Road- safety charities and environmentalists are against, the Institute of Advanced Motorists proposes trials on selected roads, the AA suggests extending variable speed limits up to 80mph.

One main plank of the supporting argument is that 80 is already the effective limit on motorways, so surely it makes sense to acknowledge it. Virtually all drivers break the 70 limit and prosecutions for speeds under 80 are rare. In order to take account of permitted manufacturing error in speedometers and the fact that it is almost impossible to adhere strictly to any limit while keeping your eyes on the road, the Association of Chief Police Officers recommends a margin of error in the motorist’s favour of 10 per cent plus 2mph. Which takes you to 79mph.

Another main plank is the huge improvement in braking, tyres, general safety and performance since the 70 limit was introduced in 1965. In those days relatively few cars cruised comfortably at 70 and many, like my Land Rover, struggled to achieve it let alone break it. The Highway Code continues to advise that it takes over 100 yards to stop from 70, including reaction time, but a modern Golf — the bestselling car in Europe — does it in just over half that.        

The main arguments against are, of course, the other sides of these two coins.  Firstly, if you allow 80 how strictly would it be enforced, how much would that cost and wouldn’t you effectively be permitting 90?  Secondly, the ease with which modern cars cruise at speed, insulating you from the road, tempts drivers to go ever faster without realising it and many simply don’t have the reactions to cope with 90mph.

The assumption behind these objections is that more speed equals more accidents.  Figures can be produced to support this — although, as we all know, the figures you get out depend on those you put in. Given that more people are killed in their homes every year than in their cars, you could argue that banning driving and going nowhere — or simply less driving — would be the most dangerous option of all. It would be interesting to see, if they exist, comparative figures for motorway deaths following the oil crisis of the 1970s when a 50mph limit was briefly imposed.

Neither side in this debate is likely to convert the other but I suspect 80 would win more driving votes than the status quo, though the nature of ‘consultations’ is that they favour lobbyists and organisations over anything approaching actual democracy. If you feel brave, Minister, go ahead; if you feel cautious, conduct trials. Or do nothing — you lose nothing, you’ve got enough problems anyway so why create one?

Or you could be cautious and brave: conduct trials on selected motorways including one on the M6 toll road with no speed limit at all. As we all know, there are stretches of German Autobahn with no limit but it’s always assumed that it would be mayhem to the point of immorality to permit it here. But would it? Why accept conventional thinking, why not test our own assumptions? No one would have to use the toll road, with the M6 alternative, and you could increase the charge. And I would promise not to test my Land Rover on it.