Sunday, February 26, 2006

#18: "All speed, no limit...?"

The information herein is a little out of date, but I'm posting it for course-related reasons. It's been "subbed" by third-parties (which is actually fairly amusing in places - slight over-obsession with the Guardian's anti-hyphenation make-two-words-one drive, chaps?) and is as they left it. Hopefully more will become clear later in the week.

"So, the government has finally decided that boxes on a stick aren’t the be all and end all of road safety; they’re throttling back from the proposed camera onslaught. Hoo-bloody-rah! The question is: what’s next? A change to the national motorway speed limit, perhaps…

No, hold on - this isn’t what you’re thinking.

Seriously, it isn’t. I may well have been on an extremely lightly trafficked M1 the other night, physically restraining my right foot - but I am so far from advocating upping the 70mph restriction I may as well face the accusations of Greenpeace membership right now.

I so wanted to do it - straight-six the road at maximum velocity - but I couldn’t. They’ve won. Via a process of intimidation and propaganda ‘the message’ has undoubtedly gotten through, in the form of four distinct thought processes to stop me: social responsibility; fear for my license; the cost of petrol/the end of the planet; and the great big unpredictable unknown of my fellow road users - I’ve got far too much imagination to ignore the possibility of someone pulling out in front of me without having first looked in their mirror.

The intriguing thing about the contemporary status of our high-speed road network is that somehow it works. That’s possibly a little bit of a controversial argument, so I should explain what I mean. Ignoring the congestion, the poor lane discipline and the unnecessary journeys, consider the speed limit itself. It’s 70mph, right - yet everyone knows that it is practical and safe to travel faster than that, and those who feel comfortable with this paradox quite happily do. Assuming the circumstances aren’t absurd or unsafe you’d realistically be unlucky to get pulled over by a traffic police officer at any speed less than about 85 or even 90mph. You can’t be sure about this, but it’s a pretty solid bet.

And that’s why the current system is so successful - we have a legal limit, and an accepted ‘limit’. There is no doubt that the vast majority of vehicles on our roads today are more than capable of safely travelling at speeds well in excess of 70mph. Driving quickly demands more of your concentration - the more you concentrate, the safer you should be. I usually feel much better about the guy or girl who passes me at 80 plus on the outside than I do about the individual dozing at less than 60 in the centre lane with empty carriageway inside of them. I’m pretty sure I could accurately guess which of them was paying greater attention, nine times out of ten.

Ok, so it’s only my personal estimation between me and an unwelcome interaction with a crash barrier - but I believe we have an acceptable status quo.

The problem for the government is that this is a status quo where a law is being broken.

That’s a difficult situation for any government to be in, even if we do have one of the safest motorway networks in Europe. They’ve tried to increase the enforcement, but when the modus operandi is as aggravating as the Gatso it’s hardly surprising that this nearly ended in tears. Put too much pressure on the public as they go about their daily lives and you risk your re-election no matter how nasty the habit. Imagine trying to outlaw tobacco – selfinflicted death in a tube, but built into the routine of millions of people. Impossible.

Make like the cigarettes then, and antiillegalise speeding by raising the limit. But there is a big, big problem with this. You can’t just raise the limit - because if the limit was, say, 80mph, more people would make the decision to do 95 or 100 as that no longer represents as big a leap from the upper boundary as before. Given that some people will go faster - in order to overtake, to simply be in front - the speeds get greater, and the risks run higher. No matter how good my guesswork might be, the driver remains the weakest link, and this amplifies the odds of anything ending with an ouch.

Leaving the limit alone and lessening the lens action? Sounds like more of the same, doesn’t it - except I’d like to make a suggestion. Take all the money currently being spent on Polaroid film or whatever and invest in policing instead.

Proper policing by well trained officers in clearly marked cars, making rational judgments, based on actual circumstances represents an opportunity for safe progress and real life to exist in an ambiguous harmony. And ambiguity in this instance is great because it makes the average motorist err on the side of caution, rather than aggressively making time between the camera sites they know as their definite antagonists. Give us a police presence, but not a police state - is that kind of balance really so hard to achieve?"

Image is from: - awesome stuff.


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