With the predictability of leaves falling in autumn, no sooner has the Government announced that it is consulting on the wisdom of raising the motorway speed limit to 80mph than the self-styled road safety charity BRAKE responds with full fury, its chief executive Mary Williams saying the move “will achieve nothing other than carnage”.
To be fair, you can’t expect a balanced response from such an organisation but it should learn that such intemperate language harms its cause more than it helps. I have often been struck by the likes of Trevor Phillips when he was at the Commission for Racial Equality, or Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti, that their more measured tones in no way dilute their message; on the contrary they make the unpersuaded far more inclined to listen to what they have to say. But if you instead adopt a hectoring, strident approach to get your message across, those who already agreed with you still will, while those you seek to persuade are far more likely to be turned off.
What interests me is what BRAKE thinks is a sensible speed to travel on a motorway. It’s very good at coming up with statistics to show why raising the limit is akin to massed slaughter (one definition of `carnage’), but rather coy about saying what it should be instead. So I asked, and was told it supported the current 70mph limit. Which prompts the question why it is against lowering the limit to, say, 60mph to prevent even more ‘carnage’. The best it could come up with was that it was “very strongly opposed to increasing the speed limits on motorways”.
What’s most depressing about this is that the speed limit question should be so easy to answer. Should the motorway speed limit be 80mph? Of course, but only when conditions allow. In high winds and driving rain it might be that 50mph is the highest speed one might describe as ‘safe’. But on a clear day in light traffic, why should a modern car not be able to travel at 80mph legally, even if you set aside the fact that it can do it with complete legal impunity right now?
When the 70mph limit was introduced 46 years ago, it had to be a blanket figure because the technology for it to be varied did not then exist. But now with our entire motorway network covered in communication boards, it is simple to use that resource to set speed limits that are temporary, local and reflect prevailing conditions, just as in Germany where such limits are enforced and observed. So you could have a default setting of 80mph, variable according to simple common sense from one junction to the next. It might then be that at certain times of the day or in certain weather conditions the speed limit across most of the country is actually lower than it is today.
But I think it will be a while before you hear the people from BRAKE say as much. It gives the impression of being still unable to grasp the basic fact that speed never killed anyone, only its inappropriate use. And to proceed from there to a position where it can communicate its views in the moderate terms likely to resonate with those who are concerned with road safety but also want or need to use their time as efficiently as possible seems a bit of a leap to me.
It’s a shame, because BRAKE actually does lots of good work and if you surf around its website it has some interesting campaigns too. But until it learns to strike a more moderate tone, I expect that a lot of the good it could do will be left undone.
A fascinating dinner with Wolfgang Durheimer (above), the new head of Bentley. Previously head of engineering at Porsche, before that he’d worked on BMW’s motorcycles and is an avid biker himself. He’s pretty keen on racing too and, indeed, in charge of all the VW group’s competition activities.
The conversation was wide-ranging. On the racing side, by the end of the year he will present to the VW supervisory board his strategy to return Bentley to the track. He won’t say what those plans comprise, other than that they “will please and surprise you”. The obvious direction is a sports car and Le Mans, but he’s not ruling out anything from Formula 1 to NASCAR. Significantly he also said that however Bentley raced, it would be Bentley racing, not some other organisation related only by a commercial arrangement. Me? I think it will be Le Mans and a prototype with a proper factory team and customer cars besides, just as Porsche used to do.
Rather harder to swallow are his plans for a Bentley SUV which seems certain to happen on his watch. I find the idea hard to stomach and fear that a huge, heavy and powerful Bentley offroader will be seen as unacceptably pointless and profligate in a way its saloon, coupé and convertible stablemates have so far avoided.
But of course that’s a very UK-centric point of view. In fact domestic Bentley sales are dwarfed by those in the US, China and other emerging markets for whom this car is principally intended. And if it were to succeed and its profits are ploughed back into making what some might call proper Bentleys, then maybe it has a role after all.
Back on the subject of racing, Bentley blood still boils at suggestion that its 2003 Le Mans winner was ‘an Audi with a roof’ as it has often and lazily been described. Brian Gush was and is Bentley’s powertrain, chassis and motorsports manager and steam still comes from his ears at the mention. “Fact is there was more British content in the Bentley than there was German content in the Audi,” he fumes. “We said so at the time, but no one wanted to listen.”
Let’s hope Bentley gets proper credit for an innovation that looks likely to give the petrol engine yet another lease of life. Audi recently showed (and let me drive) an A8 with a new 4-litre V8 which can shut off half its cylinders when not needed, with massive benefits. When it arrives in the Bentley Continental GT next year, it will improve consumption and emissions by 40 per cent, with very little adverse affect on power to weight ratio. VW already has its own version for four-cylinder cars, and soon millions of cars all over the planet will feature the technology.
But here’s the thing. Cylinder deactivation is not new, but everyone who’s tried it in the past has given up on it. The guys who figured out how to make it viable were Bentley engineers in Crewe, and it appeared in the Bentley Mulsanne long before Audi got their hands on it. So when in a few years from now you take delivery of your new Polo or Golf and goggle at its incredible fuel consumption, just remember for a moment that without the Bentley Boys making it work in the vast and rather wonderful barge that is the Mulsanne, none of it would have been possible.
Finally, back to the proposed 80mph limit and Chris Huhne’s unique take on it. He told the BBC that he “could foresee a situation where [the 80mph limit] would apply to electric vehicles, in which case there would be absolutely no extra carbon emissions”. The only way that would be possible would be for no more energy to be used at 80mph than 70mph which does appear somewhat contrary to the laws of physics. How terrifying is it that it appears not to have occurred to Huhne that driving an EV at 80mph will exhaust its battery more quickly, requiring it to be replenished more often from the mains using energy generated at a probably coal-fuelled power station? That’s Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary. Words fail.