/ 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?


When going down the M3 with my cruise control set at 70 or just below I am overtaken by most traffic some flying past at 90 or so. Upping the limit to 80 will probably mean some drivers risking 100 so will more Police be out on the motorways to catch such people. I would say NO. On the many times I have driven to Devon and back I have never seen a police car unless there is an accident

Aviation Spirit says:
7 October 2011

In the past 36 hours I have returned from driving 2,200 miles around New England and New York State in the past 3 weeks. 70% of drivers there stick the cruise control on at 65mph, 66mph and 64mph on the Interstates and at 55mph, 56mph and 54mph on the State Highways and Freeways to comply with the legal maximimums – IRRESPECTIVE of the road conditions ! Result is that huge triple-lane convoys of cars and trucks all bunch very close together along hundreds of miles of route, taking absolutely for EVER to overtake one another. That is simply not safe, so I never, ever, use it. Cruise Control is for numpties who cannot cope with controlling there own car – probably the same idiots who cannot put on their even side-lights in the absolute worst of torrential downpours you could ever imagine. They are also probably the same ones who cannot even move one finger to use indicators. In my experience Cruise Control is simply another of those ‘convenience gadgets’ that simply encourages bone-idle drivers to pay even less attention to road conditions. Here in the UK 80mph is fine on the right road and IN THE RIGHT weather and traffic CONDITIONS, and simply brings us into line with much of the rest of Europe.

There are many pros and cons for this discussion but for me the debate centres on the fact that modern cars are more capable of being driven at higher speeds BUT very few drivers have the knowledge or skill to do so safely. Until driver training, testing and monitoring improve we should leave the speed limits as they are.

This is a daft idea for the following reasons;-
vehicles use substantially more fuel at 80 than 70mph ie. more costly and more polluting.
Time saved on a 100 mile journey would be 10.7 minutes if you got a clear run which is highly unlikely during working hours.
Higher speeds increases the problem of ‘bunching’ on busy motorways. Research has shown that 50 mph is the optimum speed for traffic flow in such conditions.
Safety margins are reduced. Safety levels on UK motorways are among the best in the world in spite of the high traffic density. This would be impaired. Even 1 extra death would be a tragedy.
Policing of motorway speeds is very lax now. With cuts in police budgets, I can’t see that changing

Will says:
7 October 2011

I think the Government should have commissioned a much wider study into speed limits in general and not just asked the narrow question “should the speed limit on Motorways be raised to 80 mph”. A broad study might want to suggest 75, 85 or even 90 mph on some roads and a lower speed limit on others. It seems to me the Government has already decided to raise the Motorway limit to 80 and this study is just a way of giving them the green light.

This raises a very valid point which is that there should be different speed limits for different roads and as mentioned in some of the other posts, for different road condions (as in France for example). I sure we can all think of roads we know where the current limit is ridiculously low (or high) for that particular stretch of road.

Liz Barton says:
7 October 2011

On the motorways (Autobahnen) in Germany there has never been a speed restriction. It is such a pleasure to drive there. No doubt there have been accidents – but I believe they are extremely rare. However maybe it works because of a strong sense of discipline which characterises most Germans! It might be advisable to have a test period or phased introduction of the 80mph speed limit in UK – after which an informed decision could be made.

I have lived and worked most of my adult life in Germany and I can assure you that there are speed restrictions as well as no restrictions on all of the Autobahns. Where traffic gathers i.e. around busy and built up areas, speed restrictions are imposed.
I don’t believe a test period on Britain’s Motorways would prove anything because most fast drivers already exceed the present speed limit.
I believe there are as many deaths on German roads as there are on British roads, the difference being that Germany is much bigger than Britain which probably means that on average per head, Britain’s roads and drivers are much more dangerous. British drivers driving skills are atrocious compared with the majority of German drivers.
I say, leave the speed limit at 70mph.


Statistically there are MORE Road traffic accidents per head of population in both Germany AND France than in the UK – rather proving that UK roads are safer – and Speed Limits should remain the same.- So I agree with you to some extent.

Too many people think because they haven’t seen an accident – they don’t happen – They do..

Fiona MMcO says:
7 October 2011

I just find this a classic case of non joined up government. On the one hand we have had our lovely village streets ‘speed bumped’ to keep us driving at 20mph at all times of day or night, not just the times when children might be out playing. Also our motorway and link road citrac signs not so long ago were urging us to drive for fuel economy – keeping rev count low etc. I drive to work on an A road dual carriageway at 65mph and am regularly overtaken by all sorts of vehicles some travelling at about 90mph by my estimation. I cannot see any logic that raising speed limit to 80mph will increase productivity and boost the economy – more cash to filling stations I think!

May I point out that speed bumps also stop pedestrians – especially drunk ones – being killed. Not just children.

Steve says:
7 October 2011

Changing the national limit to 80mph is well overdue and reflects a more appropriate speed for modern road & car conditions in most instances and as such, more likely to gain the respect of the majority. There will of course be some locations where a 70mph limit is more appropriate, but there are much greater issues that speed that need to be addressed to improve safety.
More worrying is the increase in 20mph limits which are generally a misguided attempt to improve safety that are actually more likely to cause accidents. Try keeping a constant 20 in many of these situations and you will find yourself studying the speedometer far more to maintain this often unreasonably slow speed and therefore paying less attention to the surroundings where an accident may occur.

Peter Hulse says:
8 October 2011

I disagree about the 20 mph limit. I have a client with an 800-acre site, which has a universal 20 mph limit. I have no difficulty with this, as I’ve just got used to it. And cutting 30 mph limits to 20 in busy areas undoubtedly reduces accidents and saves lives, whereas increasing a 70 mph limit to 80 or 90 will have very little effect.

There seems to be a lot of arguement from the “pro” lobby that 130kph (80 mph) is legal in Europe and therefore justifies the case in the UK.

I can only speak for France, but a 130kph speed limit is almost exclusively found on privately-owned and operated Autoroutes. The road conditions are entirely different to those found on public roads, and that includes the UK’s taxpayer-financed Motorway network. There is less traffic because of the tolls, the roads tend to be newer and are better maintained, as are most of the vehicles that use them.

So, if you want an 80-mph speed limit, that’s fine by me, but be prepare to PAY to use those roads. As the whole government argument seems to be driven by economics, it’s perfectly justified to let market forces determine the premium people are prepared to pay for the priviledge. Higher average speeds cause more wear and tear on the road surfaces and demand higher standards of maintenance. I’m not paying for that, as I’m lucky to reach 40mph on my potholed rural network without risking serious damage.

So, let’s agree to start with increasing the limit on the M6 Toll and see how it goes from there.

Peter Hulse says:
8 October 2011

Interesting idea about the M6 toll road. The operator can already charge what he likes, and has decided to discourage lorries, which increase his cost of road maintenance. There seems no good reason why he should not be allowed to vary the speed limit; I don’t know how many accidents a year there are at present on that short stretch, but raise it to 90 or 100 mph for a two-year trial, and see if there’s a significant difference. And I’ll bet it would increase his income.

The proposed change will certainly increase fuel consumption, increase global warning, and increase road accidents in both number and severity. I have not seen any quantified arguments that these bad effects will be outweighed by positive social benefits.

Peter Hulse says:
8 October 2011

The most obvious benefit is an individual benefit – we will get to our destinations earlier (unless we use the M25). I am surprised that you choose to disregard individual benefit; we are all individuals. There is aalso a social benefit – there will be fewer cirminals in the country, and the crime rate will drop. At present people who break the speed limit are criminals, and probably – in conseqence – inclined to treat other laws more lightly than they otherwise would. Increasing the speed limit would reduce the criminal mentality in the general population.

Currently UK has good road safety record. Higher max speed inevitably means more deaths on roads,

Improved economy – probably b******t – and spin to make us love the coalition.

Switch on yr noodles.


Roger says:
8 October 2011

Given that many people, myself included, regard 80mph as a reasonable speed WHEN CIRCUMSTANCES ALLOW IT on a motorway, and given that the police already turn a blind eye to it, what’s the big deal? My car has clearly been designed to cruise at that kind of speed. I am not bothered by the car which steams past me at 80-90mph if the road is dry, and its daylight, and the traffic is light. I am much more bothered (angered) by the mindless morons who drive up close behind me on a wet day on a congested motorway; even at 50mph or less, they clearly have no comprehension of their stopping distance and of the hazards around them. Boy-racers probably do most of their damage at speeds lower than 70mph because they choose a speed and a style of driving which is INAPPROPRIATE TO THEIR SURROUNDINGS.

Perhaps we should only make utilitarian vehicles capable of going at 70mph maximum. We could call them the Folks Wagon, and the cars that make Jeremy Clarkson and his fans drool should only be bought by people who are prepared to confine their use to disused airfields and race-tracks, and thus by people who are prepared to risk their own injury/death in the process of driving aggressively for pleasure. That was, after all, how it was in the good old days of Brooklands and the Third Reich!

Bob Hardie says:
8 October 2011

Good for the government to get real. 80 may decrease congestion if slower vehicles are then prepared to move over. The sadness of low speed limits is at quiet/night times when the road may be clear and one is unnecessarily restricted At busy times it is hardly relevant as you can only go with the flow

The idea that raising the speed limit on motorways to 80mph will “boost the economy” is absurd. Undertakers may see some improvement in business, but the notion that it will lead to a generalised boost is fanciful in the extreme.

The increase to 80mph will bring the law and the current practical situation into line, as long as the police enforcement attitude changes when the limit changes. Practically it is very rare for people to be prosecuted for doing less than 80mph on open motorway in good conditions – there is a belief among many folk that the motorway speed cameras only trigger at 80mph anyway. There used to be an aurgument that the recorded speed on a detector had to be more than 10% above the limit to ensure that the driver was exceeding the speed limit allowing for innacuracies in measurement – this allowance is no longer required. So if they decide to increase the limit to 80mph, set the cameras to trigger at 82mph, and enforce rigorously. The many drivers who do 80mph routinely cease to be law breakers (as long as they display good lane discipline) and those who want to do 90+mph have a greater chance of being caught and needing the services of the specialist lawyers. A car travelling at 90mph has 65% more kinetic energy than one travelling at 70mph – its the dissipation of that energy that causes the damage in accidents. I think and increase in limit to 80mph with rigorous enforecement could actually improve overall casualty numbers – and I think a trial on the M6 toll road would provide a very useful start.

Bob le Chien says:
10 October 2011

Leave the limit at 70 and enforce that.

AG – Good comments but what do you mean by “improve (sic)
overall casualty numbers”? Increase them or decrease them?

Reference comment made by AG
I totally agree with you that increasing motorway speed limit to 80mph is a good idea and will reduce the number of ‘road criminals’ provided the policing is severe on all motorists breaking the new speed limit.
Makes perfect sense to me and I speak as someone who very rarely uses the motorway network nowadays but who has been driving for 46 years.

Mike Suttill says:
9 October 2011

80 mph is fine on motorways when traffic conditions allow. Like everything in life there are pluses and minuses. Cars are much more fuel efficient at higher speeds generally as the revs are lower, especially with 6 speed gear boxes. Minimum speed limits should also be considered for lane management as the British seem incapable of using the middle and outer lanes only for overtaking.

Colin says:
10 October 2011

What a total utter waste of money. As others have already stated, white van man already does 100mph plus and imagine what the cost of changing all of the speed limit signs will be !

Won’t have to change the signs, Colin. It’ll be the National Speed Limit as it applies to motorways so the signs will remain the same.

Colin says:
10 October 2011

Hadn’t thought that through had I ? My first comment still remains though and there will no doubt be unnecessary admin costs.

An increase in speed limit should be coupled with the introduction of a new offence of driving in an overtaking lane when not overtaking.

burnel says:
10 October 2011

Receipe for disaster!!!, what happened to the advice ” SPEED KILLS” Spain recently reduced the limit
temporarily and saved thousands on fuel. I would dread my grand kids going on the motorway shortly after passing their test. 80mph would improve an average speed of prehaps 2mph. Try working on a motorway ambulance or breakdown truck, then come back with an opinion.I would suggest 30% of drivers never should be on the road and 10% of those use motorways. How much is this survey going to cost?? Reduce all engines to max 2litre and fix them with 80mph limiters.Poacher turned gamekeeper

peejay says:
10 October 2011

For CO2, the article is simply wrong to say that with reduced journey times the amount being emitted could be reduced. The figures for CO2 are expressed as grams per kilometre, not per amount of time. Plus, since wind resistance is related to the square of the speed, not the speed, an increase in speed results in a bigger increase in CO2 emissions. So for given journeys, the amount of CO2 emitted would increase significantly. The article does point out that reduced journey times would result in more journeys being made, which means that overall increasing the speed on motorways would increase CO2 emissions in several different ways.

This is exactly the wrong thing to be doing.