Road Safety Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 4th July 2005.

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Photo of Lord Hanningfield Lord Hanningfield Spokespersons In the Lords, Local Government Affairs & Communities, Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Spokespersons In the Lords, Transport 6:15 pm, 4th July 2005

Contrary to most of the discussion we have had on the Bill today, the amendment suggests the raising of the speed limit in certain circumstances. It seeks to introduce the concept of variable speed limits in response to weather conditions on motorways while raising the maximum speed limit to 80 miles per hour, thereby ensuring the most expeditious, effective and efficient use of our motorway network.

I am aware that there are many statistics—a number have been bandied around—that oppose the raising of speed limits. No doubt powerful and convincing material can be brought to bear on both sides of the argument. The aim of the amendment is to achieve a simple and straightforward system of speed limits. We shall come to a number of other amendments on speed limits later, I notice.

The amendment should not be branded as a cavalier approach to road safety when it is quite the opposite. Edmund King, the executive director of the RAC Foundation, has argued that there should be a review of speed limits and that travelling at 80 miles per hour in a modern car, on a good road surface and at a proper distance from the car in front, is perfectly safe.

We all believe that low speed limits need to be imposed where vulnerable pedestrians are concentrated—for example, close to schools and so on. We had an endless, very important debate about this earlier. It is sensible to keep the maximum speed limit on a motorway down to, say, 50 miles per hour in bad weather, when rain and ice increase braking distances. That is very effective now.

The limit of 70 miles per hour on motorways was introduced at a time when most vehicles had drum brakes and there was an oil crisis. Since then, braking, steering and suspension systems have developed substantially, allowing drivers to brake more rapidly, safely and effectively. Technological advances mean that motorists can obviously travel more safely at higher speeds. Increased engine and aerodynamic efficiency, higher gearing and modern tyre technology also allow higher speeds. New developments in car technology allow the average motorist consistently to deploy full stopping abilities while retaining control and steering.

Concerns have been raised about the environmental impact of raising speed limits. The increased emissions resulting from such a small change are not likely to be significant and, as we know, progress continues to be made with new cars to reduce dramatically the amount of toxic pollutants released in emission gases. As we said at Second Reading, traffic contributes only one- quarter of airborne particulates—most of which are produced by large diesel engines in buses and heavy goods vehicles, which would not be affected by the change in speed limit. For example, a bus emits 120 times as much particulate as a car. The Association of British Drivers has shown that an increase in the motorway speed limit to 80 miles per hour would save approximately 11 million vehicle hours per year for cars, and 1.5 million hours for light goods vehicles. It would be a good way of reducing some congestion on our roads.

The notion of variable speed limits on our motorways is not new, and has been used in the past on particular stretches of road such as the M25 due to poor weather conditions or weight of traffic. In fact, we would be lucky to go at 20 miles per hour most of the time on the M25, as we all know. While the Department for Transport has said that the idea had previously been rejected on road safety grounds, it has also made clear that it would be kept under review. It has been pointed out in another place that an estimated 19 per cent of those who travel on motorways already do so at speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour, while perhaps 50 per cent exceed 70 miles per hour. The law must be enforced, as we have said several times today, but it must also enjoy public support. It is a question of achieving the balance.

Rather than holding on to the existing 70 miles per hour limit on motorways—which so many see as arbitrary and not worthy of attention—we should set realistic limits on all roads. That obviously means at times reducing the current limits, thus achieving compliance with limits that genuinely matter. This amendment will allow us to stop criminalising drivers who travel on our motorways at safe speeds.