50 years of national speed limits: Britain at a crossroads

22 December will mark exactly half a century since the UK's first national speed limit. While statistics suggest roads are considerably safer today, there are calls on both sides for a change to speed limits. BBC Countryfile Magazine examines the evidence.

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What brought about the first national speed limit?

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22 December is exactly 50 years since the UK introduced its first speed limits, originally a temporary 70mph restriction under the first Wilson government after a foggy winter had seen multiple pile-ups. It took a couple of years for the road death toll to drop, with 1966’s 8,000 road deaths the highest peacetime figures ever recorded, but, after crash rates dropped by 20%, the trial was made permanent in 1967, nine years after the country’s first motorway was opened, and with Barbara Castle as Transport Secretary.

Is it really logical that speed limits on most country lanes are only 10mph below motorway limits?

That’s what many campaigners have long been asking. According to the Department of Transport, around two-thirds of UK road deaths take place on country roads. The Transport Select Committee has previously advocated reducing the speed limit on many rural roads to 40mph or 50mph, but, despite criticism, the limit remains little higher than the motorway restriction, even though country lanes are sometimes populated by cyclists, walkers and livestock.

Local councils can reduce speed limits on certain roads which are narrow or windy, for example, but to do so requires erecting expensive “repeater” signs along the way. Campaign groups like Brake have lobbied for 40mph zones similar to 20mph zones in cities which don’t require incessant amounts of signage. This, it is hoped, would encourage councils to lower more single carriageway roads’ speed limit.

But what about motorways? Don’t most drivers do over 70 on them anyway?

Indeed, in many ways, the only pressure when it comes to motorway limits is for an increase. Recent figures suggest that nearly half of motorists break the current speed limit on the motorway, which has also been pointed out by the AA.

But, while then Transport Secretary Philip Hammond claimed that raising the limit would benefit the economy, the government eventually shelved plans to raise the speed limit during the last Parliament, with Patrick McLoughlin, Hammond’s successor, in 2013 saying it was “not a priority”. McLoughlin, however, raised the possibility of raising the limit again this year “once we get smart motorways up and running”. A Countryfile Magazine poll has shown a narrow majority against raising the limit to 80mph.

Scientists generally agree that raising the limit by 10mph would increase emissions and crashes, but the Association of British Drivers has suggested that faster journeys may lead to fewer accidents as a result of tiredness.

Don’t most European countries have a higher limit, if any?

Yes, Germany is perhaps the best-known country that has no upper speed limit on the motorway, or autobahn. European countries such as France, Italy, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands have 130kph limits (81mph), while Spain, Switzerland and Belgium restrict speed on motorways to 120kph (75mph), although most have lower limits in the event of poor driving conditions. Speed limits in the United States tend to be lower, although some states have raised them to similar levels.

Is anything likely to change?

It’s hard to know. Raising motorway speed limits wasn’t in any party’s manifesto at this year’s general election, nor was reducing limits on country lanes, and it doesn’t appear that either is imminent. On one hand, the status quo could be viewed as a compromise to keep both sides happy, but at the same time, it might make both road safety groups and supporters of faster roads happier to see motorways’ limits raised but country lanes made slower.

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The debate as to whether speed limits need tweaking in both directions is likely to continue. Roads in this country are much safer now than they were in the 1960s, with annual road death rates around a third today despite population growth. This has largely been put down to advances in technology. Yet many believe more can be done to reduce road deaths, which increased by four per cent last year. The government has also been criticised for cutting road policing numbers.