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Stop this race down the road to hell

The Tory proposal to raise the speed limit on British motorways to 80mph is a senseless policy dream

I may be overly sensitive to the dangers of speed this week, having just been involved in a car accident, but the government's announcement that it will launch a consultation on increasing the speed limit to 80 miles per hour struck me as particularly revolting. Ministers argue that raising the limit will confer legitimacy on a system in which drivers routinely break the law, and that allowing them to drive faster will "generate economic benefits", as people would get where they want to go quicker. It's a political move to curry favour with a certain type of motorist, as this comment by the Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, made clear when he announced the proposed change: "For years, Labour's short-sighted and misguided war on the motorist unfairly penalised drivers."

Since when did flouting the law bring about a change in the law? Taxes are unpopular, too: why not abolish them? Then nobody would try to avoid paying them. The rationale offered by ministers is nonsense. Those economic benefits (which have not been shown in any model) will be generated only if people raise their speed in response to the raising of the limit and drive at 90 instead of 80 miles per hour. So there will be no new legitimacy conferred - but those who can afford to will drive faster. With 80 the new 70, 90 will become the new 80.

Fuel for thought

This is a policy that gives priority to the wealthy, at the expense of the poorer and more vulnerable. Only certain people can afford to drive safely at 90 miles per hour (or even 80 miles per hour): those with secure, well-built and expensive vehicles - such as the Jaguar XJ saloon, the Transport Secretary's car - and the money to pay for the insurance on them. It's the people whom they hit, in the smaller, cheaper cars, trundling along at 60 or 70 miles an hour on motorways designed for a 70mph speed limit, who will pay the ultimate price.

It is hard to find any good argument to back up the proposed change in policy. First, the part that everybody can agree on: driving faster is bad for the environment. Stephen Glaister, professor of transport and infrastructure at Imperial College London and director of the RAC Foundation, says that an increase from 70 miles per hour to 80 miles per hour will result in the use of 20 per cent more fuel, with a consequent increase in carbon dioxide emissions. So much for the "green" Conservatives.

Second - and this is the part that, for some reason, the right often refuses to accept - speed kills. A joint Israeli-US study found that differences in fatality rates following car crashes in the US and the UK in the 1990s were largely due to the raising of the speed limit in the US and the accompanying "speed creep", together with the slowing of cars in the UK which accompanied the introduction of speed cameras.

It concluded: "If the US had implemented UK-type speed control policies and not raised speed limits, there would have been an estimated 6,500 to 10,000 (16 per cent to 25 per cent) fewer road deaths per year, during the period following speed-limit increases." It is true that deaths from road accidents are falling around the developed world - but they have fallen faster in countries that have restricted, not increased, traffic speed.

Cars may, as the ministers say, be safer today than they were when the 70mph speed limit was introduced - but not all of them. The roads are far busier, too. The safety of those tough new cars can also be a problem for the more fragile older ones; the ones containing the family on a stretched income, the young driver or the pensioner.

Another study, by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, found that SUVs and other light trucks, which account for a third of US passenger vehicles, are involved in over half of all vehicle-to-vehicle collisions in which someone dies, and in nearly 60 per cent of side-impact crashes that result in death.

In 1996, crashes between SUVs or small trucks and cars in the US accounted for 5,259 deaths, while collisions between ordinary cars led to 4,013 deaths and those between SUVs and similar-sized cars resulted in 1,225 deaths.

Incredible bulk

In crashes involving SUVs and ordinary cars, 81 per cent of those fatally injured were occupants of the car. The numbers of deaths in such crashes rose steadily in the US through the 1980s and 1990s, from 3,580 in 1980 to 5,259 per year in 1996, as the number of SUVs on the roads increased. Over the same period, deaths from car-to-car crashes fell by a third, from 6,506 to 4,013. So, yes, cars are getting safer - but not if they meet a bigger, harder car travelling at high speed.

The larger the cars, the faster drivers drive, because it feels so safe. So, arguably, as cars get bigger and safer (for their occupants), speed limits should fall, not rise, in order to contain the danger they pose to others.

Faster, heavier cars have already driven children off the roads: few parents dare let their children cycle to school, even on country lanes, due to the speed of the new, "safer" cars that the Transport Secretary trumpets. Even walking can be alarming, the great bulk of many large cars taking up the entire width of the lane.

This is a bully-boy policy that, in the name of an unproven economic benefit and a vague notion of "liberty" (whose liberty?), privileges the desires of the wealthy, mostly males, over the needs of vulnerable families and children.

I had a crash last week at a combined speed, between the two cars, of about 80 miles per hour. Thankfully, neither of the cars was much bigger or heavier than the other and both were reasonably new and safe. Airbags saved the day. But I tell you: 80 feels fast enough. I cannot imagine why a minister would want to change the law in a way that will encourage people to drive any faster.

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression