/ Motoring

Should we speed towards a new 80mph speed limit?

So the government wants to increase the speed limit on motorways to 80mph and thinks it will ‘boost the economy’. Maybe, but how will the change affect road safety and the environment?

It seems to me this raises plenty of issues – positive and negative, so let the debate begin.

When I heard about this the cynic in me thought it must be a publicity stunt, aimed at positioning the government as ‘one of the boys’ in true Top Gear-esque fashion. Then I thought maybe they have something else they want to distract our attention from. I scanned the news but couldn’t find what it might be.

I later found out this is a full-on consultation and began considering the issues for real.

Safety standards have changed

I agree a review is probably long overdue. It’s more than 40 years since the current motorway maximum limit was introduced, and at that time most cars would have struggled to exceed it by much, if at all.

The first thing that occurred to me was the potential for this to increase the risk of crashes. Accident and injury rates have steadily declined over recent years. This is primarily due, in my view, to improvements in car technology, especially in braking systems and traction control as well as the more obvious changes to car primary and secondary safety specification.

The combination of all this means cars are better equipped to avoid crashes, and if they do have them, the occupants are better protected than they ever used to be.

Will this really be much of a change?

The second thing that struck me was that, on many motorways, there are lots of people already flouting the existing rules by travelling at speeds in excess of 70mph. They don’t all have good lane discipline, but that’s another issue!

So actually, this move just legitimises what already happens. Presumably it would thus free up police resources to focus on other illegal activities (such as poor lane discipline perhaps?).

Then there’s that all too tricky ‘green’ issue. Some may claim that speeding all the cars up will lead to more pollution. But if the cars can get there faster, they’re on the road for less time, and they’ll be pumping out noxious gases for less time.

And compare the fumes produced by cars cruising comfortably along at 80mph, with what happens if you have a similar volume of traffic, all stuck in a slow-moving queue, or worse still, at idle, pumping out gases while they wait to progress.

I’m sure there’ll be claims and counter-claims on this one and I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the truth. What I do know is that outside the offices here on Marylebone Road in London, the traffic moves very slowly and the local air pollution is among the worst in Europe.

A bitter boost for business

Finally, I thought about the arguments surrounding the time saved by people making faster journeys. This is another ‘benefit’ that’s less than easy to quantify. But I bet there are businesses out there checking how much more they can get out of an employee’s working day if they can reduce work-time journey times.

But the whole calculation could be skewed by the fact that shorter journey times will mean increased demand (more people will be prepared to travel further in the course of their business). And this might in itself contribute to additional pollution and increased road maintenance costs as ever larger traffic volumes choke the network.

Would you be happy to see the motorway limit increased? Will it really boost or economy or do you have worries about safety and the environment?

Dave says:
14 October 2011

Bad idea. All vehicles use more fuel at 80 than 70, the fact they are on the road for a shorter time is irrelevant, your MPG is what matters and that increases significantly the faster your go.
Yes, car design has improved but drivers skill levels have not. There were also considerably fewer cars on the road 30 years ago than now.


Would be really interested to hear what you think about our latest Conversation: “We need a minimum speed limit on our roads”. You can comment on it here: https://conversation.which.co.uk/transport-travel/minimum-speed-limit-roads-slow-cars/

DaveG says:
14 October 2011

Just a lighter point on this subject.In 1966 flying back from Paris Airshow in a Beverley,we flew over and up the M1 into a headwind and cars on motorway were travelling faster.

Skinny Liz says:
14 October 2011

Bad idea. There are too many cars on the roads for them to be driving faster safely – if anything speed limits should be reduced.


I’m in favour of the increase. In the real world most motorway drivers already drive at, or in excess of, the proposed 80mph limit when circumstances permit. Statistics that prove that speeding is involved in most accidents is hardly surprising when most of the drivers are speeding most of the time. I accept that not all motorway driving is good driving but this is more a case for a separate motorway driving test.

Jeff Brewer says:
20 October 2011

My main worry is that lorries would no doubt be able to go faster.

Recently we travelled for 3 months in Norway where most of the travel outwith built up areas was at 50 miles per hour with some at 60 and a little at 65. The miles per gallon was increased dramatically.

I am against the increase in speed limit

John14 says:
21 October 2011

Madness! We are approaching or have passed peak oil, goodness knows where the electricity for electric cars will come from, and land will be needed for our food in the future, or houses, not tarmac. We need to get people out of car dependence, not increase it by glorifying speed and car travel. The sooner we start, the less painful it will be for eveyone. The other side of the consultation is better – 20mph in residential areas should be supported to reclaim streets for people (but please can it be enforced!).


It’s not “glorifying” speed, it’s about making more money for the exchequer because we are not using as much petrol as before. Seeing as the majority of the petrol price is duty and VAT, this represents a massive shortfall for the treasury.

Kinda self-contradictory I know (green policies) but to me this just shows that it’s all about the money, nothing else.


I for one am not about to give up my car. Public transport sux ( well the times I’ve used it ). They’d need to pay me alot to switch to public transport, so even making it free wouldn’t get me using it.