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Isaac Farnbank: A fast, free way to put the pedal down on growth? Raise the speed limit. | Conservative Home


Isaac Farnbank is Chairman of the London Universities Conservatives and President of King’s College Conservative Association.

Somewhere in Whitehall, there must be a burgeoning filing room overflowing with a plethora of policies ripe for review, but which are nonetheless embargoed on the grounds that to apply common sense would be ‘far too difficult’.  This is where the question of speed limits on A-roads and motorways resides.

When I hosted the Transport Secretary at a London Student event back in 2022, he indicated the key challenge was to maintain the national speed limit in the face of the environmental lobby.

Since then, the 50mph limit environmental trials have been scrapped and declared a failure.  Further evidence from Wales and elsewhere confirms the relative futility of further restriction. It is now high time for a wider, bolder review: the next Conservative manifesto should promise to review the national speed limit upwards.

The first road speed limits were abolished entirely by the Road Traffic Act 1930, because the previous outdated speed limits were so disregarded that the law was held in contempt. A contemporary parallel can be drawn in today’s attitudes towards speeding on A-roads and motorways.

If one gets caught speeding, the response tends to be more “hard luck” than “what the hell were you thinking?”, precisely because most thinking people recognise that the UK’s speed limits on major roads are absurdly restrictive. If we want safer roads and higher observance of speed restrictions, those limits simply must be credible.

As accidents increased (in line with rising car ownership), so too the pressure to reintroduce limits returned, although motorways were initially entirely derestricted. Labour then introduced a temporary 70mph limit on motorways; this subsequently became permanent in 1967.

Ostensibly, this was in response to a series of accidents. These accidents, however, occurred in conditions of fog and, in the overwhelming majority of incidents, at comparatively slow speed (circa 30mph). The results of a four-month trial (which was suspiciously extended at the last moment) were compared to a five-year period.

The lower limit failed to significantly reduce the number of accidents resulting in death. The evidence on which the 70mph limit was based on was shaky at the time; fast forward nearly 60 years, and the same data are now clearly irrelevant.

Over the intervening six decades, automobile technology has progressed to an unprecedented level. Braking technology, even in a mid-range car, far exceeds that of the best-performing, widely-available vehicle in the 1960s. Add in automatic intervention and other driving aids common in most modern cars, plus more stringent regulatory standards, and it is clear that most vehicles are demonstrably capable of safe running at speeds in excess of 70mph.

Not only is this the lived experience of most UK drivers; even the most cursory survey of comparable countries highlights our outlier status.

Nearly all European countries have higher speed limits whilst boasting no significant deviation from the UK in the number of fatal road accidents per capita. Even Germany, with her currently-unrestricted autobahns, has no significantly higher deaths than Britain, especially when adjusted for her marginally higher per capita vehicle ownership.

Connectivity is an essential and central component of enhancing our lacklustre national productivity. Nearly 60 per cent of all UK journeys are made by car every year – connecting people to their workplaces, family and friends, as well as to healthcare and leisure opportunities.  By virtue of the transport mode, that travelling time is unavoidably ‘dead’ and unproductive.

An increase, even if only to 80mph, would cut those journey times, releasing productive capacity and widening accessible work and leisure opportunities across the UK.

Meanwhile, over 80 per cent of all British freight is transported by road, from foodstuffs to fuel.

In the transport sector, time is money. We have a healthy logistics sector, indicative of the potential for higher growth. The rules governing HGV speeds, however, haven’t been touched in decades. These rules, which restrict HGVs to significantly lower speeds than other vehicles, also incidentally increase the likelihood of higher-risk manoeuvres.

The Department for Transport’s inertia is retarding not only a successful and consistently strong sector, but a critical component of our national infrastructure.

The Government recently pointed to the difficulties involved in modelling the economic benefits of increasing the speed limit. The best means of assessing the benefits would be an 18-month long trial. This would provide sufficient, meaningful evidence on which to base a wider decision about whether the limit should be increased permanently, and the extent of any uplift.

It clear that, in the context of constrained capital investment and a glaringly persistent productivity problem, an increase to a default national speed limit of at least 80mph would realise significant economic gains for comparatively minor monetary cost.

The presumption must be in favour of an uplift, not to maintain the increasingly indefensible status quo. To fail to even engage with the challenge would constitute a pathetic inability to take serious action in pursuit of resolving perennial economic challenges.

The practicalities of any increase are made easier by the advent of smart motorways. Variable limits could, with relative ease, be increased to 80 or 90mph when conditions allow. Other stretches of motorways and dual carriageways around the country could be included in the trial, thereby providing a representative sample.

It would also not be impossible, either, to emulate the approach of other countries, including France, where limits change according to the weather conditions.

As with any rational but potentially counter-intuitive policy change, it would inevitably fac an emotional barrage which refuses to engage with the evidence and wider contextual factors.

But even the safety case is quite finely balanced. In addition to the superior performance capabilities of most modern vehicles, the current rules, by virtue of being disproportionate, positively introduce unnecessary risks.

Drivers speeding moderately often brake upon sighting a police car or speed trap, increasing the chance of bunching, while the need to constantly check speed has been known to distract from adequate forward vision. Those consistently driving below 70mph whilst in the right-hand lane cause frustrated road users to weave and undertake.

(It is no coincidence that drivers who drive around 10mph below the limit are said to be four times more likely to be involved in a road accident.)

Most constabularies also abide by the ten per cent plus 2mph guidance provided by the National Police Chiefs Council. Although discretionary, this nonetheless demonstrates the premise that a degree of ‘speeding’ is acceptable and, by extension, deemed safe. Meanwhile, enforcing limits – although easy work for our less than esteemed police forces – consumes resources that could be better deployed resolving rather more pressing areas of concern within local communities.

We could deliver perfect road safety overnight – by shutting down our road network. To everybody except the Green Party, this is evident nonsense.

The reality of policymaking demands the adoption of an holistic approach that takes into account all factors, rather than overweighting visceral risks versus substantial, but less immediately tangible, gains. Unproven and untested safety contestations need to be balanced with the urgent need to enhance productivity, labour and social mobility, and pursue low-cost ways to support enterprises of all sizes.

The environmental lobby would try to shout down any discussion, of course. But their contentions have been shown to be false: an increase of 10 or 20mph will not make any tangible difference to aggregate air quality or our long-term sustainability. Are Conservatives on the side of working people or those with the luxury of professional protest?

Politically, a bold and meaningful pledge to review motorway speed limits would create further clear water with Labour, still zealously wedded to the loonier side of the environmental movement.

If we are serious about progressing pragmatic policies in the face of vested interests, then we cannot afford to shy away from common-sensical and long-overdue changes.  With some lesser UK roads in an appalling state of repair, poorly planned works completed at contractor convenience, the triple taxation of motorists, drivers deserve a better deal.

A review of speed limits would go some way to granting credibility to the claim that Conservatives are on the side of the British motorist.



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