By Alisdair Suttie 04 July 2012
Wednesday 4 July 2012. Fleet Voice Column.
Hill has said he thinks the British national speed limit should be reduced to a USA-style 55mph. He also added that recent government proposals to raise the motorway limit to 80mph made him ‘shudder’.
Speaking to the Radio Times, Hill also noted: “I’m a big fan of the 55mph limit. Most people are not safe to drive over 55mph. Mostly they drive too fast, too close to the car in front and they think they know what they are doing. They don’t.”
Hill went on to say: “What happens when people drive on the roads is they don’t concentrate, they just think about something else. So, they’re relying on their unconscious mind to respond to events. That’s why it’s better to drive at a sensible pace.”
While on the face of it, the 1996 Formula One World Champion’s comments might seem like a voice of reason blowing against the prevailing wind of most drivers’ preferences, Hill is misguided.
There is plenty of evidence that shows when many drivers used to driving at higher speeds are forced to slow down, their concentration falls away rapidly.
Lack of danger
It’s largely to do with hazard perception. A driver who is used to driving on a motorway at 80mph will feel there is far less potential danger at 70mph and will let his or her concentration wander. It’s not uncommon to see this type of driver fiddling with the car’s controls and even removing their hands from the steering wheel due to the perceived lack of danger.
Of course, driving at 70mph requires every bit as much concentration as at 55mph or 80mph, and I am in no way condoning or encouraging anyone to break the speed limit.
An 80mph speed limit has been considered by the government because it’s a sensible step that would bring the UK into line with the majority of the rest of Europe. On the Continent, most countries have a 130kph limit, which equates to 81mph.
This seems like an entirely obvious and common sense speed limit to this columnist. Given the ability of modern cars, 80mph is a reasonable limit and one that many drivers set themselves regardless of the law in the UK.
Rather than simply legitimising these drivers, as some campaigners claim an increase to an 80mph speed limit would do, a raised speed limit would offer a chance to realign motorway roads policing.
With a limit set at 80mph, it recognises the vastly superior engineering, brakes and ability of modern cars over those of cars built in the 1960s when the 70mph limit was set. Back then, the average family car would be hard pressed to maintain 70mph for any length of time whereas now even the most basic of city cars can cruise at 70mph all day long in comfort.
Very visible presence
To not update the speed limit on motorways after 50 years is an utter nonsense. There will be those who point to the possibility of increased deaths due to a raised speed limit, but this is something that is purely speculation.
Motorways are the safest roads in the UK network and more than half of all drivers admit to driving above the 70mph limit as it is. This points to accidents rates staying the same even if the limit is raised to 80mph.
What will make a far greater impact on road accidents on motorways is stricter policing. As has been stated before in this column, greater freedom must be balanced out by more responsibility. If drivers are permitted to travel at a higher legal maximum speed, that speed should be enforced more rigidly by traffic police officers.
By traffic police, I do not mean more ‘safety’ camera vans which are as iniquitous as they are indiscriminate. What I mean is more trained police officers in marked police cars that act as a very visible presence on the roads.
If a raised limit of 80mph was introduced to the UK’s motorways, and it’s a common sense measure, then wandering above that limit should be punished. As it stands, the police generally don’t take much notice of drivers travelling at this speed and, off the record, a number of traffic officers have told me they don’t bother with anyone driving at 80mph if their driving is of a sufficiently high standard.
Up the skills
That says it all and demonstrates why Damon Hill is misguided. He should not be advocating a lower motorway speed limit but improved driving standards. As someone used to driving a car at incredibly high speeds, albeit on a race track, he should know better than most the amount of skill and concentration required to control the car.
This is what we need to introduce to all drivers on the UK’s roads. Make drivers better and it doesn’t matter what speed limit you impose on any type of road, they will be safer.
Hill rightly points out most drivers do not concentrate properly behind the wheel. This is because most people see driving as just another chore to get them from A to B. They also see a driving licence as a right and not a privilege.
To truly make our roads safer, we do not need to drop the speed limits, we need to up the skills of everyone using our roads.
Many business drivers are now required to undergo driving assessments and training further to simply holding a driver’s licence. If this was applied to all drivers on our roads, the effect would be immediate and massive.
Instead, many would rather focus on the easy and large target of speed rather than the more tricky, complicated and costly matter of driver training and ability. Yes, it would cost money to introduce further driver education and testing, but the results would be borne out in the statistics of road deaths and injuries.
There would also be a trickle down effect for lower insurance premiums as accidents would become fewer.
Damon Hill may have stumbled into the debate about speed limits without fully considering the implications of what he said. However, let’s hope that someone as influential as Hill might also help open up the debate on speed limits so we can have a reasoned and enlightened conversation.
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