As the Tory Party prepares for its annual conference, the big idea appears to have been leaked a week early. The Government is to consult on increasing the motorway speed limit to 80mph – Transport Secretary Philip Hammond claims that it will be good for business and will earn redress for the victims of the “war against the motorist”.
At almost every level this is a disastrous piece of policy. Safety campaigners have already pointed out the potential impact on road casualties (especially on roads that have been engineered to be safe at 70mph); but that’s just the start of it. The impact on business looks like a red herring – yes, most of our freight travels by road and since we simply don’t have the long trips (over 1000km) at which rail freight becomes viable it will stay that way. But trucks are limited by EU law to 90kph (56mph) using speed governors so this move will make no difference to them – and the representatives of the haulage industry have long argued that what they need is not faster but reliable journey times.
So any time benefits will accrue to private, not commercial vehicles – and even here it looks as if the arguments just don’t stand up. The main motorway routes in the UK are seriously congested – all that will happen is that cars will move faster between jams, burning far more carbon in the process. This measure will do nothing to tackle the underlying congestion problems, and is quite likely – by increasing the volatility of flow on the network and crucially by increasing the number of accidents – to make things worse. And finally the Government argues that most people are breaking the speed limit anyway – so where is the evidence that lifting the limit will make them stop?
And I’ve blogged before about the “war on the motorist” nonsense – the fact is that over many years the real costs of motoring have fallen and the real costs of public transport have risen. In the next few years we’ll see swingeing fare increases on the railways so that’s not likely to change.
In other words – as with so many other coalition measures – we’ve left the world of evidence behind in the name of cheap populism. I’m looking forward to seeing the analysis that underpins this one – I guess it will largely be based on time-savings to all users without considering the offsetting costs. The creative accountancy that appears to afflict the appraisals for HS2 – another project that values speed for the privileged few more highly than the impact on the many – is likely to be deployed in force here.
Underlying all this is one of the defining themes of this Coalition – the flight from evidence and the conduct of government according to prejudice. As I’ve said before, the Coalition appears to want to do politics rather than government, and in this case is pandering to what is, frankly, adolescent prejudice – there is no more flagrant and depressing example of cognitive bias than the motorist assessing his own driving skills, especially when excusing his desire to go faster and break the law.