Motorway crash makes 80 mph look foolhardy

The plan to raise motorway speed limits to 80 mph, launched to much acclaim at the Conservative Party Conference, does not look like such clever politics following the M5 disaster in Somerset and last week’s release of figures showing road deaths rising for the first time in five years.

Although there is no evidence that speed was the main cause of Friday’s disaster, reports from witnesses that they saw cars ploughing into the wreckage at 70 mph suggests that had the vehicles being going faster, the death toll could have been higher.  Moreover, almost by definition, had the following cars being going slower, they would have had a better chance of avoiding the crashed vehicles.

The accident will rightly result in closer scrutiny of the 80 mph plan announced at last month’s Manchester conference by the then Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, and therefore expose, for the first time, the shaky foundations on which the idea is based. Mr Hammond argued not only that the move was sensible given that today’s cars are far safer than 40 years ago when the present limit was first imposed, but also that it would put Britain ‘in the economic fast lane’.  He suggested it would deliver ‘hundreds of millions of pounds of net economic benefits’ as a result of saving motorists about four minutes in every hour they spend on motorways.

Mr Hammond claimed Hammthis was demonstrated by ‘research’ but he failed to put it into context. The Department for Transport later explained to me that he was using evidence published in a document entitled “An evaluation of options for road safety beyond 2010” which was undertaken for the previous government by the highly respected Transport Research Laboratory.

However, Mr Hammond did not mention two key caveats in the report. First, the change would cause an extra 18 deaths, 64 serious injuries and 363 minor ones annually as a result of the increase in the severity of accidents. Secondly, in order to prevent motorists speeding,  the researchers stipulated a dramatic rise in the installation of speed cameras. They said that average speed cameras would need to be ‘installed throughout the motorway network with necessary infrastructure to process offence data’. In all that would require 800 new camera systems – not just individual cameras – being installed on the 2,173 mile motorway network at a cost of £140,000 per system with a further  £12,000 annually each for  maintenance.

Such a wholesale introduction of speed cameras runs counter to current government thinking. In one of his first moves as Transport Secretary, Mr Hammond cut funding for local authority speed cameras and suggested that many ‘have been used abusively in some places just to collect revenue’.  Removing them was a key part of his policy of ending what he called Labour’s ‘war on the motorist’.

However, installing cameras is seen as an integral part of the scheme by the researchers because otherwise the increase in the death toll on the roads would be higher and would consequently wipe out much of the economic benefits of the change. The number of extra deaths is not stated but enforcing existing limits, they say, would save 37 lives per year.

The economic assessment of the change is calculated using the standard cost benefit methodology for transport schemes which values small time savings by motorists as an economic benefit. On the other side, deaths are valued at £1.6m each in the methodology and serious injury, at £185,000. Any significant rise would therefore greatly reduce the net benefits.

Moreover, the researchers made the calculation of the time savings on the basis that currently all motorists currently drive within the legal limit. This is an unlikely assumption and suggests the benefits might in reality be much less than implied by Mr Hammond.  As a result of the projected increase in deaths, the researchers rejected the scheme to increase the limit to 80 mph and suggested instead more road safety schemes.

Coming in the very week that figures were published showing deaths on the road rising for the first time in five years, the M5 disaster could not have come at a worse time for supporters of the 80 mph limit. Reasons for the decline range from technology such as air bags and better crashworthiness, to better enforcement of drink drive laws and the installation of speed cameras but It is clear that continuing to cut the toll requires concerted efforts rather than putting forward policies that would lead to more deaths. The simple announcement of the 80 mph plan sent a subliminal message that speeding is acceptable and that may be reflected in future numbers.

Mr Hammond has left his replacement, Justine Greening, with a dilemma: either ignore the evidence and plough on with a populist policy or perform a U-turn. If her political antennae are tuned in properly, she may decide that while ending the war on the motorist is a good sound bite, saving their lives is more important.

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