Increase the speed limit to 80 mph? Fat chance from our car-hating Government

By Graham Grant

FEW motoring experiences are more profoundly dispiriting than dawdling behind an HGV at roughly the speed of a lawnmower.

HGVs aren’t the only offenders, either – traffic logjams can also be caused by leisurely middle lane-hoggers tootling along without a care in the world.

On the A90 between Dundee and Perth, I once identified the cause of a hold-up as an elderly man patiently filling his pipe as he attempted to steer with his knees.

Nowadays this wouldn’t be allowed, of course, particularly if he were driving with children in the back – smoking in these circumstances is now forbidden.

On some motorway stretches in and around Glasgow, drivers are confronted with inexplicable 50 mph limits which are widely flouted, and seem largely unnecessary and counterintuitive.

Together with average speed cameras and other abominations, this is all part of an infantilisation of motorists that in recent years has gathered pace, unlike their vehicles, turning driving into a hypertensive ordeal many strive to avoid.

Some common sense appears to have prevailed at the Tory conference this week, with Liz Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, suggesting the motorway speed limit should be hiked from 70 to 80 mph.

The increase would lead to ‘productivity improvements’, she believes, as people would be ‘wasting less of their lives’ trapped in their cars – with only the never-ending inanities of Chris Evans for company.

This proposal would be seconded by anyone who has attempted to negotiate the nightmarish, roadworks-ridden motorway network anywhere in the UK.

Philip Hammond launched an official plan to increase the limit on motorways back in 2011, when he was in charge of transport, but it was shelved due to a lack of support within the Coalition Government – and it has been on the back burner ever since.

The 70mph limit was introduced in 1965 – when most cars physically couldn’t reach that speed – and has remained unchanged, despite engineering advances that mean cars are now capable of safely and comfortably travelling at far greater velocity.

True, it’s something of a hypothetical argument in many areas, where getting anywhere near 80mph is virtually impossible because of congestion and roadworks, and the 70mph limit is already largely ignored.

Then again, as Mr Hammond argued, this is proof that it’s no longer fit for purpose, and it’s possible variable limits could legally allow driving at 80mph in those parts of the network which aren’t being excavated in the name of improvement – even relatively brief stretches would provide some sanity-restoring respite.

In Holland, a country with a superlative road safety record, the speed limit was recently increased from 70 mph to 80 mph in some areas, and this has been deemed a success.

The Netherlands pioneered heroin ‘shooting galleries’, of which the SNP is so fond – so perhaps we should take further inspiration from their speed limit shake-up…

‘Smart motorways’ – with variable limits conveyed to drivers through overhead gantry displays and calculated on the basis of traffic flows at different times – mean an 80mph pilot project in the UK, rather than blanket imposition, would be eminently achievable.

Experts tell us that cars driving on ‘roads of the future’ could be programmed to automatically report potholes, while drones may be used to fly overhead and monitor traffic blackspots.

For now, though, as we await the advent of such innovations, congestion remains the most pressing problem for most drivers.

But rush-hour misery could be eased by incentivising hauliers to avoid travel at times of peak traffic flow – perhaps through tax breaks – helping to counter the soul-sapping gridlock familiar to millions.

The power to vary speed limits is devolved to Holyrood, but there’s little evidence that the SNP is prepared to increase them – in fact its current preoccupation is slashing them, at least in shopping and residential streets, where 20 mph rather than 30 mph limits are set to become the norm.

This is despite the fact that deaths and injuries have rocketed on 20mph roads, with official figures showing the number of people killed or injured in ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ areas rose by 53 per cent in 2016 – while the number of 20mph roads rose by ‘around a quarter’.

Meanwhile the reduction of the drink-drive limit in Scotland in 2014 – another SNP policy – has had little impact on deaths and accidents.

A Strathclyde University study has found that the lower limit for blood alcohol content was not followed by a statistically significant overall drop in road fatalities, including during the peak accident periods of night-time and weekends.

There was also negligible change in the death rate for young drivers aged 16–25, who are seen as one of the highest-risk groups for drink-driving.

All of which tends to suggest that the supposedly ‘progressive’ safety-first roads agenda is counterproductive, or at least ineffectual, because it is built on false presumptions about driver behaviour.

Motorists are a marginalised constituency in a country where our political masters are ferried around by taxpayer-funded limousine (or by ‘Nicolopter’ in the First Minister’s case – but then she can’t drive anyway).

Government policy, such as it is, is predicated on the need to improve public transport – an entirely worthwhile project, though now rather alarmingly in the hands of Transport Secretary Michael Matheson, fresh from overseeing the SNP’s chaotic policing reforms in the justice brief.

In large swathes of rural Scotland, far removed from the predominantly Central Belt concerns of the Scottish parliament, public transport is something of a no-go – frankly even in densely populated urban environments, travelling by ScotRail is a lottery.

Last week it emerged that Transport Scotland had reduced the targets written into the ScotRail franchise held by Dutch firm Abellio – meaning the firm can get away with more of its trains being delayed without risking losing its contract to operate services.

So, feel free to make the commute by rail a more bearable experience, but don’t forget the drivers: after all, the number of cars in Scotland has hit a record high, despite the SNP’s best efforts to hound us off the roads.

There is now an official target for all conventional petrol and diesel cars to be phased out by 2032 (mind you, the Scottish Government itself only owns 11 electric vehicles out its 199-strong fleet).

It’s time to accept that owning a car is already pretty miserable – with the heavy financial burden of rising fuel costs, road tax, insurance, maintenance (particularly on pothole-strewn roads), and parking charges.

For those of us unlucky enough not to have chauffeurs, the right to go a little faster now and again might prove the smallest of consolations…

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper