On Tuesday morning, Malcolm Heymer, of the Association of British Drivers, was a witness at the House Of Commons Transport Select Committee, discussing ‘Road Safety’. You can hear the whole session here, if you choose to, but I have transcribed some of his more interesting responses to questioning below.
On the effect of lower speed limits on road safety –
Question: Do you consider yourself to be a road safety organisation?
Question: So why is it, then, that the views of the Association of British Drivers are so at odds with every other road safety organisation?
Answer: Well, we believe that our views are based on empirical evidence which goes back decades, and particularly in the case of speed limit-setting… that evidence has now been dismissed. And speed limits are being set at lower levels. And that’s having an adverse effect on compliance, and therefore on road safety generally.
Ellman (Chair): Are you saying – can I just clarify – you’re saying that lower speed limits are having an adverse effect on road safety?
Answer: No, not lower speeds – lower speed limits. Because speed limits are set below the level at which the majority of drivers consider to be reasonable, you get a very high level of non-compliance. And you get a greater disparity of speeds – you get more frustration, because a small minority of drivers will obey the speed limit, even if they think it’s really silly, and that will result in a large queue of drivers behind, who simply want to drive at what they consider to be normal speeds, and that leads to frustration, dangerous overtaking… It also can lead to long queues of traffic, which prevent side road traffic from entering, or crossing, a main road. So you get these additional conflicts, even road rage, as a result. So if you have sensibly-set speed limits, which means set at the 85th percentile, which is the level that 85% of drivers wouldn’t exceed anyway, experience has shown – this goes back, certainly in the United States, to the late 1930s – that is the safest level at which to set speeds, speed limits, and you get the lowest casualty rates.
Quite why or how drivers come to consider a certain speed ‘reasonable’ is not addressed. A large part of that equation is surely the existing speed limit on a road in question. Drivers increasingly feel it ‘reasonable’ to exceed speed limits by 10% or more, because they know that’s what they can get away with. The breaking of speed limits isn’t a rebellion against an ‘unreasonable’ speed limit – it’s a reflection of how fast you can go without expectation of getting into trouble. It’s not hard to imagine the effect of raising the speed limit to match what people feel they can get away with.
On the potential raising of the motorway speed limit –
Question: The Association of British Drivers supports the increase in the speed limit on the motorways to 80mph. Given that we have amongst the safest motorways in the world, why would we want to change the speed limit and risk – regardless of whether or not it does have an impact – why would we we risk the chance of making our motorways more dangerous?
Answer: Well obviously the ABD doesn’t believe that it would make motorways more dangerous. Department for Transport figures actually show that, averaged over the motorway network, the 85th percentile speed for cars on motorways is 79mph. And that will vary, of course, from motorway to motorway. That means that, with the 85th percentile being the ideal speed at which you might wish to set the speed limit, 80 mph is in accordance with that, and therefore the right speed limit for motorways in the majority of cases. Of course there are places where a lower speed limit may be necessary, and there are sections of that today, 50 mph and 60 mph motorways, which will no doubt remain the same.
Question: So if the 85th percentile is currently 79 mph, is there not a suggestion amongst different organisations that if you increase the speed limit to 80 mph, the 85th percentile will go significantly above 80 mph?
Answer: I know a lot of people believe that, but the evidence is that it’s not so. I mean I’ve got a case in point. Admittedly from the United States. But it’s a dual, three-lane freeway, which is equivalent to one of our three lane motorways. Where, in the 55 mph era, the 85th percentile speed was 73 mph. That’s 18 mph over the speed limit, and in fact 98% of drivers were exceeding the speed limit. When the limit was raised to 70 mph on that road, the 85th percentile actually fell to 72 mph. The mean speed only increased by just over 1 mph. So there was a reduction in the spread of speeds, as a result.
Question: Would you not accept that there is a significant difference between a speed limit of 55 mph, and a speed limit of 70 mph?
Answer comes there none, from the ABD, as to why drivers see our current 70 mph as so ‘unreasonable’ a speed limit, and yet 80 mph would be seen as eminently reasonable. It cannot be a response to the road conditions, because motorways are the same, everywhere, and have been since their inception, and permit driving at speeds far greater than 70 or 80 mph. The real reason why 80 mph is ‘reasonable’ (and 90mph, or 100 mph, is not) is that it lies around the 10% threshold of what drivers can get away with. Their logic here is just as flawed.
A question on the relationship between speed limits and accidents –
Question: Is it your view that when a speed limit in a local area is reduced, then the road rage becomes so intense, that accidents actually do go up? That there’s a direct correlation between lowering the speed limit, and an increase in the number of road accidents?
Answer: There can be, if the limit is reduced to well below the 85th percentile.
Question: That’s not anecdotal, that’s actual empirical evidence that you can submit to us?
Answer: Well there’s evidence, for example, from the county of Suffolk, which at the end of 1995, I think it was, introduced some 300… 450 new 30 mph speed limits, within a three month period. Some of those were on roads that were previously national speed limit. And when you look at the trend in casualties for that county, it was continuously downwards from 1990 to 1995, and in 1996, it reversed direction and started going upwards. And that was for the county as a whole, not necessarily individual roads.
Chair (Ellman): So it wasn’t necessarily on those roads?
Answer: No, it was for the county as a whole.
Question: For your premise to stand up, you would have to show that the accidents on the roads where the speed reduction took place – that’s where the increase in accidents happened.
Answer: Not necessarily, because you can get migration of accidents. Because people have slowed down unnecessarily in some areas, they might try to make up time somewhere else.
Question: We’re talking about empirical evidence here, and you’re talking about supposition. You’re not talking about actual evidence.
Answer: There’s also a coroner’s inquest from late 1996 which specifically cited one of these new speed limits as a contributory factor to a fatal accident.
A coroner had the stupidity to blame one man’s fatal driving on a ‘low’ speed limit on another stretch of road – manna from heaven for the ABD, who have been trading on this anecdote for the last fifteen years.
‘Frustration’ at not being able to break a speed limit is no more an excuse for reckless driving than not being able to watch the TV programme you want is an excuse for murder.
Frankly it’s embarrassing that this organisation is given a platform by the House of Commons, with the concomitant credibility – especially when it can respond to a fact like this
The Kent and Medway Safety Camera Partnership (KMSCP)… said there has been a 74% reduction in the number of people killed or seriously injured at fixed and mobile sites in the county since 2002, the equivalent of 397 people. Ch Insp Andy Reeves, head of roads policing for Kent Police and KMSCP chairman, said the figures “speak for themselves”.
With a comment like this –
Terry Hudson, the Kent spokesman for the Association of British Drivers, which opposes speed cameras, said: “They may have saved a few lives, but we’ve got to remember, they’ve prosecuted a lot of people over a long period of time. And the effects of getting a driving ban or losing one’s job is never, ever taken into consideration.”
Yeah, I mean speed cameras may have saved a few lives (400 or so, in Kent alone – but who’s counting) but we should never forget some people have been trapped by them, and then – after quite reasonably failing to learn their lesson, and being trapped by them several more times – have actually been banned from driving! Temporarily!
I mean, what gives?
Where’s our sense of perspective? Surely everyone knows temporarily losing your driving licence is a fate worse than death?