Socially Unacceptable Speeding?

Why speeding will never become as socially unacceptable as drink-driving

Government ministers are often heard saying that they want to make speeding "as socially unacceptable as drink-driving". The long-running campaign against drink-driving, combining progressively tougher enforcement with hard-hitting advertising, is regarded as a major success that has reduced the number of drink-related road deaths by more than two-thirds, and transformed drink-driving from something that was widely acceptable to being confined to an unregenerate hard core, for whom few have any sympathy. Surely the same approach could work with speeding, which is often said to be the cause of up to a third of road casualties. But, in reality, there are many factors which mean that speeding is a very different case, and the ministers' aim is totally unrealistic:

  • You have to have a certain amount of speed to actually travel anywhere. No driver has to drink any alcohol at all
  • Travelling faster brings a benefit in freeing up more time for other things. Nobody ever gained any advantage from driving when drunk
  • The majority of drivers exceed speed limits at some time (at least 70% admit it, probably 95% actually do it). Only a small minority knowingly exceed the drink-drive limit - and indeed only a somewhat larger but still small minority did so before the breathalyser
  • Under many circumstances, exceeding a speed limit is not it itself unsafe. Every driver will increase their accident risk if over the drink-drive limit
  • There is one single drink-drive limit, whereas speed limits vary between 20 mph and 70 mph on different types of road
  • Roads of similar character often have different speed limits
  • It is not always obvious what the speed limit is on a particular road
  • Speed limits are being changed (almost always downwards) on a daily basis. The drink-drive limit has not changed since 1967. If it was reduced, as was proposed a few years ago, it might make drink-driving, at least between the new and old limits, a lot more socially acceptable than it is at present.
  • The increasing level of arbitrary enforcement of ever-lower speed limits by automatic cameras is making speeding convictions if anything more socially acceptable, not less
  • Many of society's greatest heroes - Jackie Stewart, Linford Christie, Steven Redgrave, Red Rum - have achieved their status through speed. While there have been many famous drunks, we normally think less of them for being drunks. Nobody is famous purely for their prowess as a drunkard.
  • There are no popular sporting events that involve people trying to undertake tasks when under the influence of alcohol
  • Police drivers are trained and authorised to drive at speeds in excess of posted speed limits. In the correct vehicle and conditions this can be done quite safely ("hot pursuit" is a separate issue and one that does not concern civilian motorists anyway). By contrast, police drivers are never either authorised nor trained to drive when under the influence of alcohol. So the police themselves do not consider the two things even remotely comparable.

If you needed to consume a certain amount of alcohol to be able to drive at all, if drink-drive limits varied by up to 350% between different roads, if roads of the same character could have wildly different limits, if councils could set their own limits in defiance of police advice and central government guidelines, and the roads were littered with "drink-drive cameras" that could accurately determine your blood-alcohol level, while the only meter you were allowed could legally be up to 10% out, then drink-driving would not be socially unacceptable.

Any form of transport requires some element of speed; none requires alcohol. There is a benefit to be gained from travelling faster if it can be done safely, there is no benefit from driving under the influence of drink. So speeding cannot be equated with drink-driving, and will never be as socially unacceptable.

(July 2001)

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