Speed limits and risk

Numbers killed on British Roads 1920 - 2010

I like to follow the MotoGP. MotoGP involves riding incredibly powerful motorbikes around a track at extremely high speeds in very precise racing lines in close proximity to other bikes. It takes a hell of a lot of skill and no small amount of luck. Sometimes it goes wrong, as in the recent accident when Marco Simoncelli died following a collision during the race.

Is racing fun? Definitely. Is it dangerous? Hell yes! Why, then, do they do it?

Simple. Because they want to.

Step back now and look at the roads that we drive on every day. They are definitely not to be compared to a racetrack, and yet they are still dangerous. In 2008 in the UK there were 228,000 injuries in road traffic accidents. Of those, 26,000 were serious injuries, 2,538 died, and the remaining 202,333 were minor injuries. In air travel, globally there were 884 people killed in 2008 in 156 accidents. I couldn’t find statistics for injuries compared to deaths, but I’m assuming that nearly all aircraft accidents are fatal. (Statistics from Wikipedia, links below.)

Most people are aware of the risks, but nearly everyone will sill travel by road and by air. I think that is for two reasons. Firstly, the actual chances of an individual being in an accident are pretty small. Secondly, we make a trade off – we all take risks everyday, either for convenience or for fun. Those risks extend to most aspects of life, and yet I think road safety is subject to far more campaigning and legislation than most things. I think making the roads safer for us all is very important and I am grateful for all the additions that help with that – seatbelts, airbags, ABS brakes, MOTs, and thousands of other improvements. I think that the campaigning goes too far though. For one thing, I think that the effect of speed on accident rates is exaggerated by safety campaigners. When there are accidents that could have been avoided I believe that the problem is usually not speed, but other failings of the driver like following other vehicles too closely, not concentrating on the road or looking before manoeuvring, or misjudging weather conditions. Safety campaigners argue that the national speed limit should not be raised from 70mph to 80mph because it would cause more accidents, but would it really? I suspect that actually it will make no difference and I think that unless the speed limit were reduced down to 30 or 40mph then the severity of accidents wouldn’t change either.

We should not forget that when motorways were first introduced they had no speed limit. There were many accidents, however those accidents for the most part were not caused by inability to control a car at speed, but the inability of the cars to maintain those speeds without falling apart or exploding. Cars then were rickety, had few safety features, and many unsafe design decisions, and their engines and parts could not deal with high speed travel without overheating or wearing out. In addition cars in much poorer condition were allowed on the road. Modern safety features and MOT checks have changed all that and cars are far safer and more capable now and so I believe the 70mph speed limit to no longer be necessary.

Numbers killed on British Roads 1920 - 2010
Numbers killed on British Roads 1920 - 2010 and relevant changes

Many bikers are increasingly worried about new and proposed regulations affecting motorbikes and especially regulations coming from the EU. Motorcycle Action Group (MAG) and other groups have even staged protests against many of these laws which would mandate taking away absolute control of the throttle and ban home maintenance or making changes to parts of the bike, among other things. There are even some who are calling for an outright ban on motorbikes.

I believe this to be absurd, and not just because I ride a motorbike myself. When riding, people again make a choice between risk and convenience or enjoyment. These rules would remove that choice from people. A great many people ride motorbikes for enjoyment, but most also ride motorbikes because bikes and scooters are the cheapest and simplest way for many people to get around. These changes would destroy that advantage and make motorbikes costly and complex.

I think the arguments against raising speed limits for safety reasons are null and void. If the rise is unsafe, and if motorbikes are unsafe, then so are cars. Where does it end? The only logical conclusion is to ban road travel. And then ban kitchen knives and hot cooker hobs. And ban lawnmowers. And… well, you can see where I am going. We always take some risks just to get on with our lives, and we make choices about the amount of risk and the trade-off made.

Finally, I should point out that many people are against a speed limit increase for environmental reasons. That’s fine, but you should note that it is a separate issue from speed, and that it also rules out speed increases that are more environmentally friendly. If an electric car were charged by wind-power, why shouldn’t it travel at 80mph?

And so I’m in favour of increasing the speed limit. Actually, I’m in favour of abolishing speed limits on motorways altogether. It works for Germany.

All of the above is my own opinion and is changeable subject to rational arguments or actual research and statistics.


Reported_Road_Casualties_Great_Britain [Wikipedia]

Aviation_accidents_and_incidents [Wikipedia]

EU Hands Off Biking! [MAG]

Ban motorcycles, safety expert says [Telegraph]

The end of home servicing? [MCN]

Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

6 thoughts on “Speed limits and risk”

  1. About the fatalities statistics you use at the start, there’s no way that most aircraft accidents are fatal.  156 accidents and 884 deaths would mean less than 6 deaths per accident.  I suspect most accidents with fatalities involve commercial airliners with hundreds of passengers on them.  2 or 3 bad accidents could account for all of the fatalities here – I’d guess that if one person dies in an airline crash, it means most people invovled will die.  
    There are also plenty of accidents that don’t involve any deaths – remember Nigel Farage? And ones which involve no injuries at all.

    Since you don’t rely on those stats in your argument I don’t see that it matters. On a seperate note if you are looking at risk, you should be looking at deaths per passenger mile, rather than absolute numbers to get a better idea of the risk (esp. relative risk of different forms of travel).My main criticism of the rest of your argument is that speed increases both risk and severity of consequence.
    Whilst I’d agree that speed is often (maybe usually) not the main factor in an accident, it does increase the risk.  If we are talking about inattentive drivers, the faster you go, the less time you have to react, the more likely you are to be distracted during the crucial moments.
    Being tired also slows down reaction times, so going faster just adds to this.
    Going at a faster speed also means that your momentum is increased, meaning that any impact is going to be more severe, and that it will take longer to stop.

    That’s not to say that I know what the right speed limit is in terms of safety. Personally I’d set them at 55mph for environmental reasons.  All I’m saying is that going faster is more dangerous, and that if everyone drove at 40mph on motorways, you might not see much of a drop in the number of incidents (though I think it would fall), but you would see a drop in the severity of incidents – it’s not often you hear about multi-car pile ups on dual carriageways, but it happens every year or two on motorways.
    I doubt it’d make that much difference in absolute terms though.
    My feeling would be that it is not the absolute speed that is the issue, but that relative speed is more of a safety problem – that 80mph is more dangerous than 70mph, but that it would be safer to drive at 80mph in traffic moving at 80, than at 70.
    Also, the right speed for the right condition – on an empty motorway, in good conditions, 180mph (in the right vehicle obviously) is probably safe.  On a busy motorway in fog, 20mph might be not be safe.

  2. simple maths thing really. there are more people on the roads than ever so more accidents.
    and most of them are idiots.
    there should be a Shrews law that allows you to kill anyone who drives in the outside lane on duel carriageways. you know the type. they are turning right five miles down the road but don’t understand they are blocking traffic because they are A) talking to sharon B) slagging sharon off
    C) listening  to Justin beber D) they are sharon E ) just plain thick and have never read the highway code.
    i have just got my first speeding ticket in 28 years of driving GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR
    39 in a 30 zone. it was a duel carriageway wide pavements no parked cars no traffic in front. no housing   a  long straight road , so it was practical to give it a little bit of revs except for the
     sneaky undercover police car behind.
    i have great respect for the police the way they kindly assist the looters by not getting in the way
    but find cash cows like motorists easy targets. when i am offered the safe driving course by the police instead of points.. i should offer to set up my own police training  course for the copper who don’t get stuck in when there are riots etc. i will invite them into my room and kick the crap out of them and say ” come on you are supposed to fight back” .

  3. Whatever the means of traveling, there are always speeding limits and risks. Not talking about aircraft accidents, because they’re in another league. Unfortunately, there are a lot of drivers with a careless driving style on the roads, which are the cause of many problems for other traffic participants. They really need to learn that they’re not the only ones on the road.

  4. ***Any injury in traffic accident has mild and longtime effects and injuries  takes many months to heal but when somebody is injured in traffic due to somebody’s recklessness then one must file a  traffic accident compensation claim against him with the assistance of solicitor///////

  5. Even if I also love to watch all MOTO GP races, not just because I love to see all the riders speeding but also because I’m in loved of Valentino’s driving skills…Even if lately he’s not on top, as he used to be a few years ago Rossi is still my favorite.
    I got a few speeding tickets because after a race I wanted to see how it feels to speed, not like him( 300km/h) but anyway…close to this value. It’s an amazing feeling but it’s not recommended on the road but on a professional circuit.

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