Matters of moment, September 1983

An opportunity lost?

We have to admit it, our hearts leapt when we read a newspaper headline “Speed limits to rise”. At last, the miserable 70 mph limit on Britain’s motorway system was to be increased to a sensible (and normal) 80 mph, surely?

Unfortunately not. Transport Under Secretary Mrs Lynda Chalker has proposed a series of 31 changes to the speed limits for commercial vehicles, coaches, and cars with trailers in a draft set of regulations which will be set before Parliament after discussion. Most of these are upwards and welcome, a car towing a trailer for instance being allowed to cruise at 60 mph on motorways and 50 mph on other roads.

What is so surprising is that the changes are proposed simply because the existing limits are so widely ignored, apparently. If Mrs Chalker is so rightly concerned that the law should not be an ass, we wonder why she did not attend first to the most abused limit of all, that of the 70 mph limit for cars on motorways?

We have endured this 70 mph limit since 1967 and have seen the effect, and consequences, of vehicles bunching up into groups, just as critics said would happen. Bunching is rare in Germany where most sections of the vast autobahnen system are free of any limits for private vehicles, and are unusual in France where a more sensible 130 km/h (80 mph) speed limit prevails.

If any law brings otherwise law-abiding citizens into conflict with the police it is that concerning speed limits. Young officers are, we gather, encouraged to meet certain targets in prosecutions, therefore concentrating on motoring offences (so much easier, and less time consuming, than looking for burglars and muggers), while some of their more experienced colleagues are not above dressing up the evidence a little to make it more convincing.

The practice of policemen in falsifying evidence to courts seems to be increasing, and involving more and more motorists. Some officers (a minority, we hope) do not see any wrong in telling a magistrate that they followed a car for half a mile at a steady speed, when they clearly did not, in stating that a motorist was doing 90 mph when that was their speed while catching up, and embellishing their testimony in other, similar ways to make it sound more weighty.

Most magistrates know that this is a practice but have to give the benefit of any doubt to the police; more and more motorists are aware of it, too, but realise that their voices are in a wilderness — no-one likes to talk about “bent coppers”, and heaven knows their job is bad enough when they attend a motorway pile-up. Perhaps they believe that their duty is best served by catching all the drivers exceeding 70 mph before they have their accident (in their opinion). The diligence does, of course, add substantially to the coffers of local authorities and helps to keep the police patrols on the road, but there is nothing that could justify the bringing of false evidence to secure a conviction. That is the beginning of the end of our free society. Mrs Chalker speaks of “concern about the 70 mph limit on coaches,” being prepared to “consider evidence from interested organisations that this limit may be too high”. That sounds like Big Sister at work, for what interested tell-tale parties could she have in mind, unless environmentalists . . . or the outgoing chairman of British Rail, Sir Peter Parker?

An express coach travelling at 70 mph on a motorway can be rather daunting on a wet day, when it travels along in a high-speed blanket of spray leaving one with the choice of accelerating past when it is safe to do so (and breaking the law in the process) or falling back and following this obstruction for dozens of miles. The risk of a coach driver falling asleep at the wheel is probably higher than any connected with his actual speed — and would actually increase if the limit were to be lowered. Mrs Chalker’s statement mentions that the British Standards Institution has nearly completed its research on reducing spray from the wheels of heavy lorries (we hope this includes coaches), and will be the subject of draft regulations in the autumn. If that is the case, we have no doubt at all that coaches should continue to run at 70 mph and that motorists should be permitted to increase their speed, legally, to 80 mph or more. Mrs Chalker has indicated that there is time for discussion, and we will make our views known to her.

Next month’s Motor Sport will include a petition against the 70 mph speed limit, so make sure you obtain your copy and use the petition fonts. There may never be a better opportunity to make our views known to a transport minister, so if in the meantime you wish to make your feelings known on the subject write to Mrs Lynda Chalker, MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport, 2 Marsham Street, London SW 1P 3EB.

A predecessor in 1967, Mrs Barbara Castle, took note of the original Motor Sport petition against the 70 mph speed limit which, perhaps, changed her mind about lowering the limit to 60 mph after the trial period. Let us see if her present-day successor has a more enlightened attitude. —Michael Cotton