Traffic Management Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 29th June 2004.

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Photo of Lord Rotherwick Lord Rotherwick Shadow Minister, Environment & Transport, Deputy Chief Whip, Whips 6:00 pm, 29th June 2004

My Lords, the intention is simple. We seek a clear, straightforward and safe system of speed limits that retain the confidence of the motorist. This amendment would introduce the concept of variable speed limits due to weather conditions on motorways. Raising the maximum speed limit to 80 miles per hour would ensure the most expeditious, effective and efficient use of our motorway network.

We all believe that low speed limits need to be imposed where pedestrians are concentrated, such as around schools, in densely residential areas and near the homes of the elderly. These are important speed limits that should be stringently enforced—and quite right too.

Speed limits are not enforced on our motorways. It is quite usual to witness drivers overtaking one in the far lane at 85 miles per hour. Drivers do not consider themselves to be criminals for doing so, and the police use their discretion by choosing not to prosecute thousands of motorists. This, as my noble friend Lord Goschen pointed out in Grand Committee, demonstrates a seeming de facto agreement between the police and motorists that in good weather the speed limit is actually around 85 miles per hour.

This is deeply unsatisfactory. Most motorists and the public at large need to know what the law is, have confidence in it and believe that it will be enforced. Edmund King, the executive director of the RAC Foundation, has argued that there should be a review of speed limits. Driving at 80 miles per hour in a modern car on a good road surface at the correct distance from the car in front is perfectly safe. The safety features, braking, steering and suspension systems in modern cars are radically different from those that prevailed in the days when the 70 miles per hour limit was introduced. At that time, 70 miles per hour represented the peak of a car's performance. Indeed, I believe that it was introduced as a temporary measure due to the oil crisis of the time. This is no longer the case and we need to recognise that.

It is also the case that in a number of European countries the motorway speed limit is considerably higher. Has the Minister been lucky enough to have driven along a French or even an Italian motorway? He will have noticed that while driving at 112 kilometres per hour, which is 85 miles per hour, cars speed past him quite safely in the outer lane. Surely when the Government are keen to import so much else from Europe, it is odd to refuse to look at established practices in countries that have operated motorway systems effectively for far longer than us.

As the noble Lord, Lord Davies, pointed out in Grand Committee, the last government review of motorway speed limits concluded that increasing the speed of cars on motorways would lead to higher levels of air pollution. We need to bear in mind that traffic contributes to only one quarter of airborne pollution, the majority of which is produced by the large diesel engines of buses and heavy goods vehicles. We are told that the pollution from buses is 120 to 150 times worse than that from cars.