Lower Speeds by Stealth

The Highways Agency and local authorities are taking the law into their own hands in imposing unjustified blanket speed limit cuts

A typical example of NSL signs at the entrance to a small, winding lane, where the main road, which is much better suited to higher speeds, has had its limit reduced. This gives out an extremely confusing message to drivers.

In the Autumn of 1999 I wrote about the threat of ill-considered proposals for "lower speeds on rural roads", and in particular about the illogicality of a blanket reduction in the speed limit for derestricted single-carriageway roads from 60 mph to 50. The government have now - unofficially - ruled this out, but it seems that some highway authorities are jumping the gun and deciding to do it themselves on lengthy stretches of rural trunk road.

During 1999, the Highways Agency reduced the limit on the entire length of the A6 in Derbyshire from Bakewell to Chapel-en-le-Frith from 60 to 50 - excluding the short dual-carriageway Taddington Bypass which remains at 70, and the intermediate 30 limits through Buxton and Dove Holes. In Staffordshire, much the same has been done for the A523/A52 between Leek and Ashbourne, adding insult to injury by enforcing the scheme with a battery of speed cameras - at least nine in each direction, on a thirteen-mile stretch of road. 40 mph limits, backed up by cameras, have also been imposed in two places that scarcely qualify as hamlets. Since the national limit remains at 60, these schemes have to be marked by 50 mph signs about every quarter-mile, and derestricted signs at every turn-off.

I understand that these schemes in fact extend all the way to Derby on both routes, although as I have not actually travelled south of Bakewell and Ashbourne I have not seen this at first hand. I was also wrong to have initially attributed these schemes to the respective County Councils - in fact, in both cases, they are trunk roads and the responsibility is primarily that of the Highways Agency. However, both Derbyshire and Staffordshire have imposed similar schemes on non-trunk roads.

Clearly there are some locations on these roads where it is not safe to travel above 50 mph, but equally there are plenty where, in good conditions, it is. For example, on the A6 it is difficult to exceed 40 in the very twisty section through Ashwood Dale, but the well-aligned sweeping curves in the valley of the Wye just west of Ashford-in-the-Water can easily and safely be traversed at 60 by a competent driver.

The point about a national limit on derestricted country roads is not that it is safe to travel everywhere at 60 mph, as it manifestly isn't, but that drivers are expected to exercise discretion about the correct speed to travel at. By reducing speeds to a "lowest common denominator" level which in many locations is below that which experienced drivers would consider safe, these local authorities are contributing to the deskilling of drivers and eroding their ability to judge safe speeds correctly. It isn't safe even to travel at 50 mph on the A6 through Ashwood Dale - but some people may now think that it is, because a sign seems to say so.

An immediate objection to these schemes is the expense that must be involved in putting up all those extra signs, and the unsightly clutter it causes in some of our most beautiful countryside. This might be a price worth paying if it was going to make a significant difference to casualties, but it's hard to believe that it will. In reality, it will only succeed in reducing speeds in locations where it is, in many circumstances, safe to exceed 50 mph anyway. The real speed danger comes from people who travel at highly dangerous and illegal speeds, and who couldn't care less about limits anyway. It may make more difference to actual speeds if enforced by a battery of cameras - but the argument against littering roads with cameras is a different one which space prevents setting out here. Suffice to say that they encourage drivers to watch out for cameras rather than hazards.

There is an obvious inconsistency with other "A" roads of comparable or inferior quality where the limit has not been reduced, and even worse with minor roads which remain derestricted. The ludicrous sight of a wide, straight major road with '50' signs every few hundred yards, and a pair of derestricted signs at the turn-off to the most narrow and twisting country lanes, sends out a hopelessly confusing message to drivers.

Overall, these schemes give a clear impression that speed limits are being set by administrative caprice rather than any rational and consistent assessment. As many drivers will see it, some roads have been given "the treatment" by the anti-car brigade, while others have so far escaped. Inevitably this will bring speed limits even further into disrepute, and there is a good case for saying that these measures have made the overall country road network in Derbyshire and Staffordshire more dangerous, not less.

Postscript (May 2001):

In mid-2000, Derbyshire County Council put through a similar scheme to reduce the speed limit on the A624 between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Glossop from 60 to 50, with a lengthy 40 section on the Hayfield bypass. North of Hayfield this is a fairly twisty road and it probably makes little difference to real-world car speeds, but the southern section is well-aligned and includes some long straights. "A high accident rate" was the reason given.

In late 2000, the Highways Agency announced plans for a similar "safety scheme" for the A523 between Leek and Hazel Grove. However, in this case they seem to have learned from experience to some extent, as some 60 mph sections have been retained between Leek and Macclesfield, even though this section, particularly that bordering Rudyard Lake, is if anything less well aligned than most of that south of Leek. The new "Silk Road" Macclesfield relief road, some of which is single and some dual carriageway, remains at the NSL (60/70), but there is a 2-mile section of rural 50 limit between Poynton and the northern end of the Silk Road at Prestbury. There is even half a mile of largely rural 40 mph limit at the southern end of this stretch, on either side of a new signal-controlled junction. Scheduled for completion by the end of 2001, the scheme was not finally finished until mid-2002.

(February 2000, last updated August 2002)

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