The pros and cons of lowering the motorway speed limit — part two.

In Part One of this post, we looked at the arguments in favour of a lower speed limit on our motorways. This time, we’ll look at some arguments in favour of keeping things as they are, and try to come to some overall conclusions.

Let’s jump straight in.

Con 1: Slower journeys waste our time

All the positives from Part One have to be weighed against the fact that slower journeys mean more time stuck in your vehicle. And that’s time you’d probably prefer to spend doing other things. To illustrate this, we did some simple GCSE-level Maths calculations.

Average speed Time for 50-mile journey Time for 100-mile journey Time for 200-mile journey
70mph 43 mins 1 hr 26 2 hrs 51
64 mph* 47 mins 1 hr 33 3 hrs 7
60mph 50 mins 1 hr 40 3 hrs 20
50 mph 1 hr 2 hrs 4 hrs

*The 64mph limit is based on the recent proposal by the International Energy Authority that countries lower their maximum speed limits by at least 6 mph.

According to the Department for Transport, 54% of motorway journeys are 50 miles or under. From the table, you can see that a reduction from 70 mph to 64 mph would mean a piddling four minutes extra in the car, and even dropping to 60mph only adds 7 minutes. Some days, we can spend seven minutes waiting for the computer to fire up.

It’s when you get to longer journeys that slower speeds really start to take effect: a 200 mile journey takes an extra 29 minutes at 60mph. A 50mph limit would add a yawnsome 69 minutes.

This could have a significant impact on those businesses that rely on long distance travel. If staff are paid for time on the road, that means any benefits from increased fuel economy will be more than cancelled out by more hours worked. For the self-employed, it means a choice between longer working days or less time spent at their work destination.

So, for businesses at least, the money-saving aspect of lower speeds looks dubious.

Con 2: Faster is more fun

Our second counter-argument against lowering speeds is emotional rather than practical. For many people who love cars, going slower is, well… boring. There, we said it.

Now, we’re certainly not advocating that we go all autobahn. Sharing the tarmac with 130mph eurobarges is a mixed blessing at best. It’s just that 50 mph on a motorway can feel so achingly slow, so pedestrian. It doesn’t set a keen driver’s heart on fire.

Some opponents to lower speeds feel it’s all part of a general unpleasant trend: yes, driving is getting safer and greener, but somehow some of the joy is being sucked out of the experience.

Con 3: It’s all the government’s plan to extort more money from…

Blah blah blah. Sorry, we were reading the comments sections on news articles again. Next!

Con 4: Lowering speed limits is undemocratic

We live in a democracy, and the job of the government is to enact the will of the people. And therefore, if the overwhelming majority of citizens don’t want lower speed limits, what right does the government to make those changes? We are not, after all, in North Korea.

Well, there’s an interesting debate about whether people have the right to choose laws that damage each other’s wellbeing, or that of future generations. We’ll be happy to sidestep that, because our research turned up something really interesting. Actually, it turns out that there is broad public support for lowering national speed limits.

Even more surprising (for us, at least) was that this is because of the carbon-cutting benefits.

Last year, the WWF commissioned one of the largest ever surveys of public opinion on the best ways to tackle climate change. Their research asked 20,000 people about the options they would support in order to tackle climate change. 82% said that they would support reducing speed limits from 70 to 60mph. Yes, we could quibble over how the questions were phrased and so on, but any way you slice it, that’s a lot of support.

Yet perhaps it’s not so surprising. For broad swathes of the population, climate change is among their top concerns. For Generation Z, the effects of climate change are their greatest single fear. It’s not just the young ‘uns either: recent research has showed support across all generations for making big lifestyle changes in order to protect the environment.

So, where does all that leave us?

Cards on the table time: the idea of lower motorway speeds doesn’t exactly fill us with delight. We don’t look forward to taking more time to drive long distances, nor of breaking the speed limit when we’re barely in fifth.

On the other hand, there are undoubted health and environmental benefits to lowering the limit, and we have to be weaned off oil sooner or later. It’s a head vs heart argument.

Maybe it all comes down to what we’re used to. Our 70 mph limit has been in force since 1965, so not many drivers have experienced anything different. 70mph is so familiar that it feels like the natural state of things.

And yet in the big picture, that 70mph limit is a complete anomaly. For 99.999% of human history, the only way to even get to 70mph was to throw yourself off a cliff. The fastest any human could reasonably expect was perhaps 40mph on a genetically gifted horse. As for a journey of 200 miles — for most people, that required days, not hours.

In just a couple of generations, we’ve come to see 70mph as our right, what’s owed us, regardless of the consequences. So the point is that if we’ve learned to move our speed expectations up, we can move them back down again, if that’s the sanest thing to do.

If national speed limits do end up moving down, we’ll gradually adjust like everyone else. Just expect plenty of banging on about the good old days, when 70mph was king.

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