On the limit for half a century

Will a recent campaign be enough to increase the speed limit set on UK motorways?

For many drivers, the 70 mph limit on Britain’s fastest roads is all they have ever known. It is fifty years ago this month since a new temporary ‘ experimental ‘ speed limit was introduced on motorways, and also on dual carriageways that were not already restricted by a lower limit.

The 70 limit was imposed in reaction to a distressing series of multiple pile-ups on motorways in fog back in the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, the fog carnage, which was blamed on drivers going too fast for the conditions and the available visibility, led to calls for something to be done. The chosen solution was to introduce a limit to curb excess speed.

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Out of step

Half a century is rather a long time for something that started as a three-month trial, but the experiment was extended before being made permanent in 1967. It would be good to be able to report that there have been no fog pile-ups since then. As we all know, sadly that isn’t the case.

Any suggestion about raising the limit is inevitably controversial, and opposed by safety campaigners, although probably welcomed by many motorway users. As anyone who sticks to the limit on a motorway knows, it is widely flouted.
Having a 70 limit puts us Brits out of step with much of the rest of Europe, where the upper limit on the fastest roads is mostly 130 km/h, or about 80 mph. OK, 81 mph to be precise. Of course, there are even still a few places where no upper limit applies, notably some German autobahns, and many non-urban roads on the Isle of Man. But those are rare anomalies on the European motoring scene.

Time for change?

Now, marking the anniversary of the introduction of Britain’s 70 limit back in 1965, there is a campaign initiated by the Association of British Drivers aimed at persuading the authorities to raise the limit to 80 mph.
They argue that substantial improvements have been made in vehicle and highway engineering over the past 50 years, and also that drivers are now very much more accustomed to motorway driving. In 1965, motorways had only existed in Britain for seven years, with the first one – the Preston bypass, an eight-mile stretch of what is now the M6 – opened in December 1958.

The ABD also claims that today’s widespread lack of compliance with the 70 limit is an indication of its irrelevance to modern conditions, and that it is detrimental to respect for speed limits generally. They further assert that other adverse effects are tailgating, poor lane discipline, ‘undertaking’ and lack of driver concentration.

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Lost respect

ABD director Ian Taylor argues that “Fifty years after it was introduced, the 70 mph limit has long lost the respect of the majority of drivers. The government should increase the limit to 80 mph without delay, bringing it into line with modern safety standards and most other European countries.”

Former Transport Secretary Philip Hammond was known to support raising the limit, but it is opposed by safety campaigners on grounds that accidents might increase. The pro lobby counters that by pointing to what happened in the US when the federal 55 mph limit was abolished in 1995. Most states then raised the limit on motorway-type roads. The safety lobby predicted huge increases in casualties as a result, but it didn’t happen.

Even so, safety has to be a major factor in any decision. So what’s your view? Should Britain’s 70 mph limit be raised to 80, or should it remain where it is? It’s a timely debate, and any change after 50 years is going to be highly contentious. We’d love to hear your views.




Sue Baker is a seasoned motoring journalist with a love of all things automotive.