/ Motoring

It’s about time we threw out the 70mph speed limit

UK motorway

What do you consider to be a normal and safe speed on the motorway? Let’s face it, many of us don’t stick to 70mph – so why are we stuck with a limit that’s out-of-touch with reality?

Have you ever tried to drive along a busy motorway at the legal limit? If you have, you’ve no doubt felt intimidated by the hordes of other drivers thrashing past. All within a few inches of your car’s bodywork, over- and undertaking – in an effort to complete their journey without being held up.

Time to update our speed limits

A quick straw poll of drivers in our office demonstrated that 80mph is considered the ‘normal’, safe speed on the motorway. Ok, it’s hardly the robust research Which? is renowned for, but it does show that the legal limit of 70mph is archaic to many.

After all, this limit was introduced more than 40 years ago when most vehicles would hardly have been able to exceed it anyway. Modern cars are more than capable of cruising quietly and safely at 80-90mph and above. And most smaller-engined motors can exceed 120mph, while larger ones often have their limit capped at 155mph.

So why – when the road and weather conditions are right – shouldn’t we be allowed to make use of this performance? I’m not advocating that we all drive at 150mph all the time, but surely 80-90mph is perfectly acceptable on uncrowded motorways in good weather.

Europe is leading the way

Having driven fairly frequently in mainland Europe over the past few years, I wonder why we don’t adopt a more sensible approach, such as that taken by Germany.

There, the limit ranges from none to below 80kmh depending on the prevalent weather and traffic conditions – and when a limit is in place it’s rigorously enforced. This means you’re free to put your foot down on open stretches, but must keep to a sensible pace when it’s necessary for safety.

This seems the sensible solution to me. Well-considered speed limits – higher and lower than 70mph – would produce a big improvement in road safety. If you’ve ever been driving in torrential rain and been overtaken by some manic doing 100mph who can’t possibly see where they’re going, I’m pretty sure you’ll agree.

It brings to mind a very sound comment once made to me by an advanced driving instructor: ‘It’s not speed that kills, it’s inappropriate speed.’

Do you think we should change the 70mph motorway limit?

There should be varied limits according to conditions (41%, 331 Votes)

Yes, it should be higher (39%, 319 Votes)

No, it's right as it is (20%, 164 Votes)

Total Voters: 814

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Enforce speed limits like mad!! Everywhere!! Would cut down that awful CO2 some people think is a pollutant.

It is strange but when there are average speed cameras operating the traffic seems to flow quite nicely usually. But there are always idiots who don’t care about other people or the law.

And in Germany half the autobahns have a speed limit of 130k and the police used to hand out huge fines to those who exceeded the speed limit excessively.

Quote: “Modern cars are more than capable of cruising quietly and safely at 80-90mph and above.”

Very true. Cars have improved enormously in the last 40 years. Sadly, drivers haven’t.

Vision, reflexes, ability to concentrate for long periods of time, etc. are exactly the same as 40 years ago, and 40 years before that. And remember it isn’t only YOUR reflexes that matter.

Traffic has increased enormously, and (anecdotally) distractions, frustration, aggressiveness and impatience have all increased.

I’ve driven high powered BMWs and Volvos on unrestricted German roads at speeds up to 140mph. Believe me, it’s absolutely terrifying and I don’t think any sane person would argue that it’s safe. Oh, and you wouldn’t believe what it does to your fuel consumption.

Cars might have got safer and more capable, but humans haven’t. The law is now 70 and most people think 80-90 is acceptable. Make it 80 and people will be justifying 100 mph.

Higher speeds are bad for road safety, its bad for those that those that don’t want to drive at high speeds being ‘bullied along’ by speed freaks, its bad for the environment and it raises stress in the driver.

70 mph is the MAXIMUM speed in perfect conditions, that means daylight, dry, low levels of traffic, adequate stopping distances and a car in perfect condition, correctly maintained with properly inflated tyres.

Yet when its heavy rain, poor visibility, night time etc people still drive like too fast, too close and wrongly anticipate what others are going to do.

Very few drivers lift their vision to look far enough ahead to properly ‘read the road’ and make good decisions to keep things flowing smoothly. This is why we get sudden tailbacks, because a bad driver has read the road wrong, suddenly had to break hard and caused a knock on affect. This doesn’t happen in places where the speed limit is lower. Actually lowering the speed limit to 60 mph creates a smoother, more consistent drive and a lot less stressful journey.

What happens on the M25 with variable and mostly lower speed limits from 40 mph, to create this smoothing effect should be used more often country wide.

Keep 70 the maximum and enforce it better.

Pops68 says:
6 November 2010

I think the time has come to actually lower the speed limit to 60, both to reduce the environmental impact and also to keep a better flow of traffic. But I also feel it’s right to increase the minimum speed from 40 to 50.

However, I also believe in stricter enforcement of traffic regulations, and stopping people cruising in the middle and outside lanes would help the general flow, and also improve road safety.

I know we all want to get from A to B as quickly as possible. However we also want to get to our destination safely and with as little stress as possible.
The inside lane is the least stressful but you must be prepared to keep your speed to 56mph along with the HGVs.
Going up a stress level increase your speed to 70mph. Unless you are a middle lane hogger you have to read well ahead to safely move from the inside lane to overtake the HGVs . Contrary to an earlier comment, moving at the legal limit I find 80% of the traffic still overtakes me.
The top stress level is driving over 70mph. Not only are you increasing your own danger but everyone else’s as well. You considerably increase your mpg and have to keep a wary eye on speed cops and cameras on motorway bridges.
Keep the 70mph limit.

Well said

Gold star

Paul says:
8 November 2010

While our cars have become more capable at speed since the 70mph limit was introduced, our roads have become much more congested and we have become more concerned about the environment. I think these factors have about cancelled each other out and 70mph still seems about right. Our roads are amongst the safest in the world, and certainly much safer than German or French roads. Perhaps the 70mph limit has something to do with this. I would be very surprised if increasing the limit did not increase fatalities, and there is no doubt at all that it would increase CO2 emissions. Currently all cars can cruise at 70mph, so speed differentials are minimal but would definitely increase if the limit were to rise substantially. It’s not the 70mph limit that is to blame for excessive and unpredictable journey times – it’s the congestion. Tackle that.

Malcolm M says:
9 November 2010

Although the 70 mph speed limit was introduced when most cars would barely get above this speed, there were also many fewer cars on the roads. On two lane motorways there would be too high a speed difference between the lanes for safety if the upper speed was increased.
If there was a Minimum as well as a Maximum speed limit on each lane this would perhaps reduce the speed difference and have the benefit of geting the “middle lane regardless of speed” drivers over to the appropriate lane.
Does 50 to 70 for the nearside lane, 60 to 80 for the second lane and 80 to 100 only if there is a third lane, sound appropriate?

We’ll be talking about this in the Cars Podcast (available 18th November from http://www.which.co.uk/podcasts) As a pedestrian, I was hit by a car once. It was doing a stately 28 mph. Had it been doing 38 mph, I may well not be here.

Smudger says:
25 August 2014

If the car was doing 38mph it would of missed you. Cars are for the roads, pedestrians should keep to the footpath. If you want to stay safe keep out the road.

Without wishing to present a divided front among Which? staff, I disagree with Claire’s position. The crucial point is about the ability of the driver to choose an appropriate speed for the prevailing conditions. If we accept this ability isn’t what it should be for many drivers, then we have to resort to the lowest common denominator. Without variable speed limits (a separate can of worms) this would have to be for the worst possible conditions.

That’s why I’m in favour of lower speed limits on motorways – unless variable speed limits are imposed nationally, and controlled sensibly. As it stands, we simply can’t be trusted to drive safely at 70mph, so the limit should be lower.

Reducing speed limits has the added benefit that fuel consumption is reduced dramatically, without significantly affecting journey time.

You can listen about this in this month’s Cars Podcast, with guest appearances from some of the Which? Conversation commenters above. http://www.which.co.uk/podcasts/cars/2010/11/19/ Thanks for taking part!

Well I’m heartened by the sensible majority who believe that 70 mph is fast enough. I agree!!

well it kind of has already been proven that speed limits aren’t realistic and people are far better drivers than they are given credit for. every accident i’ve been in has happened between 5-20 mph.
people need to be less relaed about driving and more en garde like i am behind the wheel.
if people drove less like zombies and more like they were involved in a dangerous activity half the problem would be solved.
considering everyone is supposed to be in the ‘slow lane’ and the maximum and minimum is 70mph why should any car e allowed to travel at 60mph. people who don’t drive at the limit are just as bad.

as for older drivers personally i think after the age of 65 drivers should be tested 2-3 yearly on their ability to drive at the actual limit on all roads.

i for one am sick of having to drive behind people doing 35-40 on 50 roads. that crestes the traffic especially in places like surrey where its really congested.

Douglas says:
4 September 2011

Keeping up with traffic sounds at first like a good idea, but leads people like sheep to travel at the highest speed locally and become your hated tail gater’ never leaving sufficient space to the car in front for their speed or changing road conditions and convoy theory then comes into play(calculated many years ago by (A. Einstein) no less, whence a small alteration by braking at the head of the convoy multiplies toward the rear raising the required reaction times to those of an F1 driver or above!, most cars now have a high repeater rear braking light for this very reason, you may have noticed that on busy motorways the traffic seems to ebb and flow without obvious reason and can be found to clump or convoy together with large spaces between each group that is convoy theory, age 69, miles driven 1,700,000 approx.
You will not like this, Gatso cameras should be linked by internet to police traffic control centres and should a driver ignore limit to a high degree i.e. 95mph on 70 limit etc. a traffic car should actively start an immediate pursuit of said car with a view to stopping of this behaviour and prosecution of offender, you may not know this facility already exists on CITRAC road systems some of which even have laser speed checking. I have no doubt enough patrols may not be available in all areas but the accident rate would determine a starting point and I would welcome the re-test of older drivers above 65, bikers included.

I totally disagree – in all aspects –

And you “say “every accident (AKA CRASH) I’ve been in occurred at 5 – 20 mph” May I point out that repeated crashes does NOT point to a competent driver.

I for one am sick and tired of being tail-gated by incompetent drivers – who flash their lights to try to force me out of the way when I am driving at the maximum speed allowed – what ever that is.
And – directly I get out of their “god given” way – zoom up to the next driver in front and do the same,

I personally like to see everyone INVOLVED in a crash have to take the test again. – I assume that you are well under 65?

I haven;t had a crash or conviction in 64 years of driving daily – why should I be forced to be retested when I have proved to be at least safe by not having a crash?

Clive says:
15 December 2011

50 MPH is fast enough – then we can just all set our cruise control and all waft along in one big stress free happy familly – HGV’s included!

tahrey says:
10 August 2012

Yeah, because we all want to take five hours (each way!) doing the Birmingham – Penrith section of the M6 alone even before the city and A-road parts each side are taken into account, when at regular sorta-legal-ish motorway speeds it only takes three.

I don’t know just -how- deeply retired or poorly travelled some of the people making these comments are, but if you think a fifty average is perfectly fine, I’m confused about why you have a car in the first place. You’d be much better off getting a bus to the local coach station, hopping on a national express service, then getting a taxi at the other end. About as fast, a bit cheaper, and much less stressful.

And you’ll be out of the way, on the bus, whilst the rest of us who don’t have four solid hours to waste out of our very limited free time go about our business at the regular speed, e.g. on a once-a-year cross-country visit to a far-flung branch of the family.

(Or at least, you can go the old route, up the A34 then A6, and see just how horrendous an experience non-motorway-speed travel actually is unless your express purpose is to stop and smell every rose along the way, rather than getting to your actual destination where all the things you WANT to do are in as quick and efficient a fashion as possible)

Sorry tahrey but in the absence of a minimum speed limit it is fine for people to drive on the motorway at 50 mph. Many commercial vehicles travel at this speed, so why not cars? Perhaps more average speed cameras will get the speed merchants on to buses and trains, when they have lost their licences. Some of us care about preserving our lives, saving fuel and – heaven forbid – think about the environment. Your priorities might change by the time you retire.

Incidentally, I do generally drive at 70mph on motorways.

tahrey says:
10 August 2012

Is there, like, a word limit here or something that we’re not being told about? Because anything I’ve written that’s even vaguely long-ish has vanished without trace, no warnings, and no sign of it ever appearing. I wrote a long-ish reply to wavechange (dude, you’re reading my first reply all wrong. think about it) and it’s just -gone-. WTF.

Some contributors post very long messages. If you include any links you will have to wait until your message is vetted by the moderators.

I have re-read your message and my interpretation is still the same. I won’t get in your way if you want to exceed the speed limit on a motorway, but I don’t see why you are opposed to anyone driving below the speed limit.

Douglas says:
16 December 2011

Claire says “why should you be forced to keep to 70mph?” the word forced should give you a clue here Claire, this speed is High, open your window and stick your head safely into the passing air stream and you may get some idea of speed out-with your cocoon, changing direction suddenly at such a pace is not so easy and your vehicle may not be so wonderful depending on it’s centre of gravity! I mention this event because of the rise of SWERVING rather than BRAKING as a reaction to the unexpected, watch motorway crashes on film, swerving features heavily and proves the case that loss of control at high speed is serious and so easy to cause. Road width Claire takes away your perception of speed on the wide open spaces of that empty? motorway during the day on the roads you mention is not a scenario I recognise, having driven many miles around London, for example 30 years ago my first journey entering London on the M1 4 lanes, 80mph common even then and raining, tailgating the norm that is what I would recognise
Your journey time is not important and is no reason to think it should be reduced, arriving is important and should be paramount in your mind Claire.

tahrey says:
10 August 2012

An Irishman, Spaniard, Italian, Frenchman, German, Dutchman, Pole, Swiss, Austrian, Australian, and a fair sweep of Americans wouldn’t actually consider it THAT high, Doug. 65-70 isn’t actually all so bad on a scooter with an open-face helmet, either, you should try it sometime.

Just Me says:
19 January 2012

The 70 mph speed limit should be maintained and fully enforced. However no matter what the speed limit is, there will always be some idiot tailgating you. Technology should be used to curtail this foolish practice, forcing the car behind you to back off if it gets too close for the speed it is traveling at. In doing so, we may find that a lot more people would be happy with the 70 mph limit, as it is often the pressure to go over the limit, from other drivers, that causes the speeding-on-mass during rush-hour periods etc.

tahrey says:
10 August 2012

Do not make the mistake of thinking that your own opinion is that of everyone else’s.

Akshat says:
5 April 2012

Having just been ticketed for speeding on a practically EMPTY road at 12:15pm on a sunny day, I am somewhat saddened to see the ham handed “oh my god speeding is the work of the devil” attitude of many readers here. The author has raised a valid point, sadly many responses are little more than “speeding is bad because 70 is the law, mkay?” or “I like to drive at a snail’s pace and people who want to drive faster are bullying me”. If one feels uncomfortable on the road then they need to develop their skills. There is always a slower lane folks. The fact remains today’s cars can safely handle higher speeds and shorter braking distances. Another fact is the miniscule percentage of traffic incidents are caused due to speed. The lazyness on the part of some people who refuse to learn to drive sensibly forces the rest of us to drive slower as well. If we are going to go down this route then why not simply say goodbye to personal motorcars and enforce public transport use for everyone? I’m sure it will be extremely safe.

The design of modern cars means that they are safer to drive and provide more protection in an accident. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all drivers. I suggest you use public transport and leave those of us who try to comply with the law (even if we don’t always succeed) to use the roads. I hope you are never a victim of a motor accident, but this could change your perspective.

Sorry, Akshat, that was not intended to be personal. I felt a bit miffed on the two occasions when I twice received points on my licence for driving just above the speed limit on 30mph dual carriageways.

I am very much opposed to any rise in the speed limit on motorways. Quite apart for the increased risk to drivers, it would use considerably more fuel.

tahrey says:
10 August 2012

Hmm, I’m trying to post a comment, and though it looks like it’s succeeding just fine, it’s not appearing on the page. Any ideas what I could be doing wrong, folks?

Hello tahrey, not sure which comments you’re referring to. They’re not stuck on the back end, nor in our spam filter. Are you sure they don’t appear higher up in response of other commenters?