The Slow Pace of the Country

The pitfalls of "slower speeds on rural roads"

There has been a lot of talk recently in the media about the problems caused by the volume and speed of traffic on rural roads, and the need for "lower speed limits on country lanes". While this may sound superficially appealing, in practice it isnít likely to prove as simple as it looks. In response to these calls, the government have suggested that they are considering what they describe as a 50 mph speed limit on rural roads. But exactly what would that mean Ė and what effect would it have?

It is worth reiterating the current position. Outside the black-and-white "derestricted" signs, the national speed limit is 60 mph on single carriageway roads and 70 mph on dual carriageways. This does not mean, however, that it is always safe to drive at 60 mph, as in many places it clearly isnít. But, outside urban areas, the effort involved in assessing every stretch of road, the visual clutter that would be caused by speed limit signs, and the impossibility of effective enforcement, mean that it is simply not practical to set a variety of different limits. But it places a clear responsibility on drivers to adjust their speed according to the conditions and the character of the road, which, in general, out of an instinct for self-preservation, they do very well. It should also be remembered that, before the 1974 oil crisis, the limit on these roads was 70 mph, and before 1965 there was no limit whatsoever.

One option would be to reduce the limit purely on unclassified roads. However, as it not realistic to expect drivers to know at all times whether they are on an A, B or unclassified road, this would demand a vast increase in signage in the countryside. Ironically, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, who have been amongst the most vocal supporters of "slower speeds on rural roads" have also been known to complain about "countryside clutter". They canít have it both ways.

This would also make very little difference to real-life speeds. There are very few stretches of unclassified rural road where traffic routinely travels at much above 50 mph. Also, it could not be effectively enforced, and the police would probably make little effort to do so. Are they really going to erect speed cameras, or set speed traps, on isolated ruler-straight minor roads in Fenland just on the offchance that a few cars might drive along them well in excess of 50 mph Ė somehow I suspect not. In any case, the people who really do travel at irresponsible speeds on country roads have no respect for speed limits anyway and, knowing they were unlikely to be caught, would do just the same as they did before.

The other option, and I suspect the one they have in mind, would be to cut the general limit on derestricted single carriageway roads from 60 mph to 50 mph, which would at least mean that the countryside would not have to be littered with a forest of signs. But this would mean a reduction on thousands of miles of trunk roads where it is currently perfectly reasonable to drive at 60 mph, and indeed often at the pre-1974 limit of 70 mph. Earlier this year, for example, I drove along a section of the A46 Alcester bypass which was so wide and straight that the RAF could have landed a squadron of Hercules on it, and was about as far from a "country lane" as it is possible to imagine. 50 mph here would be a painful crawl.

However it was implemented, "50 mph on rural roads" would achieve the worst of both worlds. It would not placate the anti-car lobby, who would still be bleating hysterically about "traffic terror" and all the rest, but it would demand a reduction in speed precisely in the places where it is safest to travel at higher speeds. It would also, given the impossibility of effective enforcement, bring the law into further disrepute. And one of the biggest complaints is about heavy lorries on rural roads, which would be completely unaffected, as they are already restricted to 40 mph on single carriageways.

The government should leave well alone, and concentrate instead on educating drivers to vary their speed appropriately in response to differing conditions. Ironically, perhaps the best way of encouraging them to take more responsibility for their own actions would be to restore the national limit on single-carriageway roads to the 70 mph that applied before the oil crisis.

(September 1999)

CPRE (Council for the Protection of Rural England)

Read more about this dangerous nonsense. It's unfortunate that this well-regarded organisation, which does much valuable work in other fields, has been taken in on this issue by the anti-car zealots.

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