Speed Limits: Other drivers should stick to them

Either there was little support for any change in the 70mph speed limit, or the 1,519drivers in the MORI sample for the 1995 Lex Report on Motoring were a self-righteous lot. My Sunday Times motoring column of 22 January 16 years ago noted about a third enjoyed driving fast, two-thirds did not, yet scarcely any wanted the limit raised to 80mph, as the 2011 Minister of Transport is broadly hinting. The 1995 survey showed strong opposition, among the surveyed, to lowering the limit, yet two months earlier anonymous magazine readers voted nine to one in favour of raising it to 80mph with stricter policing. It looks as though there is a dichotomy about speed limits; Everybody Else should slow down.

A strong majority (nearly two drivers out of three according to the Lex survey) believed driving too fast the second most frequent cause of accidents after drink-driving. There was support for speed cameras although respondents declared these made no difference to their own driving - presumably beyond reproach - but were useful for slowing others.

Drunks, speeders, the over-tired, and ,'driving too close to the vehicle in front' were blamed for accidents, disregarding bad weather, congestion, faulty road design, vehicle defects and practically everything else.

Surveys, however reliable and illuminating on facts, suffer from respondents telling interrogators not so much what they think, but what they feel they ought to think. Pollsters try to take this into account by 'weighting' results, yet blaming drinking and driving as the most frequent cause of road accidents shows how strong the social pressure on it has become. The real figure is less than one-fifth. The popular view that 'accidents happen to other people' now reads, 'accidents happen to other people who have been drinking too much and driving too fast.'

Speed has always been a target for safety propagandists. The 70mph limit was imposed in 1965 by a Labour Minister of Transport, Tom Fraser, in response to a spate of accidents on foggy motorways. It was scarcely a measured reaction, but gave the impression of determination to do something. Fraser called it an experiment and asked the Transport and Road Research Laboratory (TRRL) to look into it.

The results were at best inconclusive, at worst deceitful. The TRRL knew on which side its bread was buttered and to accommodate the new incumbent, the non-driving Barbara Castle, reached a suitably equivocal conclusion. Mrs Castle made the limit permanent. It made no difference to the fog accidents, of course, and enforcement was patchy. Motorways remained the safest roads in the country accounting for just 3 per cent of the casualties, 11 injury accidents per hundred million kilometres compared with 108 in built-up areas and 33 in non-built-up areas.

Modern technology has made enforcement easier. Cameras, Vascar, unmarked cars, and radar guns make motorway speeders more likely to be caught. The AA supports the 70mph limit and says two-thirdsof its members agree. The RAC advocates a review. 'We have the worst of both worlds,' it says. 'We have a limit that is ignored by the majority, including the police. We ought to ask why we have a 70mph limit. If it is right then it should be enforced, if it isn't, what should it be?'