A new speed limit at midnight

A red DAF XF articulated truck with red tractor and curtain trailer with the name "Dünya" and a globe with the land in light blue on it.Tonight at midnight, the speed limits for trucks on roads in England and Wales go up by 10mph: the maximum speed on single-carriageway roads to 50mph, and on dual carriageways to 60mph (in practice, vehicles will not be able to exceed 56mph as they are all fitted with speed restrictors). This is something the industry has been campaigning for for some time, but safety charities have criticised it as giving into law-breaking and some drivers complain that it will mean they are paid less as they can complete jobs more quickly. Personally, I welcome it, although I think it should be accompanied by speed limit adjustments for other vehicles as it still leaves trucks doing 10mph less than cars.

The speed limits at present were set in the 1950s when trucks were slower than they are today, but had less effective brakes (previously, the truck speed limit was 20mph!). The speed limits were already among the highest in Europe, where motorway speed limits for Europe are 80km/h (50mph) in most countries and lower on normal roads (for example, it’s 60km/h or 37mph on main roads in Germany) and now are probably, on average, easily the highest. In the 1950s there were no motorways (the first motorway as such was opened in 1956) and far fewer dual carriageways. These days there are sections of dual carriageways which are distinguished from motorways only by having green signs (in particular, the A2 in Kent and part of the A3 in Surrey), longer stretches where the road conditions do not merit having the lower speed limits, and wide or straight single-carriageway roads where trucks doing 40mph are an annoyance to other drivers.

These days large parts of the country do not have motorways, only long stretches of dual carriageway: most of these are away from the big cities, such as in eastern England (the Humber region being an exception) and the south-west. In other areas, dual carriageways have been built to avoid the cost or environmental impact of a previously planned motorway (e.g. the A50 from Leicester to Stoke on Trent, which was built in place of a planned motorway, the M64). These roads are not always greatly inferior to actual motorways; the M1 in particular has narrower lanes than some newer motorways, like the M40, while dual carriageways often have wider lanes. Their junctions are often (but not always) tighter, which does present a hazard, but specific speed limits can be applied in these areas rather than across the whole road.

The road safety charity Brake issued a formal response (.docx) to the changes, claiming that the limit increases “average speeds”. The problem with this is that average speeds do not cause accidents; specific vehicles’ speeds at particular moments cause or contribute to accidents, along with poor observation, lane discipline or other forms of bad driving, along with other factors such as road and weather conditions. They also claim it “sets a dangerous precedent that if traffic laws are persistently flouted; the government would rather change them than enforce them”. In fact, even the police have at times understood that the limits are an unnecessary nuisance and have encouraged truck drivers to do 50mph on long, straight stretches of single carriageway. Right now, they don’t expend much effort in enforcing the speed limits on some (long) stretches — last time I drove the A1 from Worksop to London (which I did quite frequently on one job I did last summer), there was only one speed camera north of Huntingdon.

I don’t buy the argument that higher speed limits will mean drivers will get paid less as they will finish jobs quicker. This might happen on some runs, but on others, the time saved will allow an extra drop or two which will add hours and, with it, pay, and in any case, if the journey is mostly by motorway, this time saving already exists and nobody is campaigning to bring the motorway truck speed limit down. What is more likely is that transport supervisors will expect drivers to do 50mph when previously they had been doing 40mph, when the road conditions make it safe to do 45mph or so but not 50, at least not all the way. Sometimes I’m more concerned about finishing the job quickly and getting home than I am about squeezing a bit of extra money out of it, and it’s only likely to make a big difference if you are on a long journey and can do 56 most of the way (like 20 minutes on a 200-mile journey). If you’re stopping and starting a lot, being able to do a few stretches a bit faster won’t make much difference.

I would support harmonising speed limits for different types of vehicle. On two-lane carriageways on dual carriageways, for example, I would advocate a speed limit of 60mph for everyone. Why? Because when people join these roads, especially at the tight junctions that they often have (e.g. the A1), people in the inside lane have to move across to let them on, and when someone is coming from behind at 70mph (or more), this becomes impossible, making it necessary to slow down rapidly. If the speed limit on single carriageways was 50mph for everyone, the remaining annoyance of being stuck behind a ‘slow’ truck when you ‘should’ be doing 60mph would be reduced, and a fairly large number of single-carriageway roads are not suitable for doing 60mph anyway. It would also make it easier for drivers to slow down when entering villages as they have less speed to lose.

The majority of truck drivers are responsible adults and not joy-riders or maniacs. A few already drive their trucks too fast or otherwise dangerously — tipper drivers being the worst offenders — and for these people there needs to be better enforcement on safe driving other than speed. The new limits apply on roads where a limit above 40mph, or the national speed limit, already applies; it will not mean that truck drivers can drive any faster on urban roads where the speed limit is 30mph — that isn’t changing. We also don’t want to get into accidents (particularly with other trucks, where we are more vulnerable because we sit at the front of our vehicles on top of the engine, not behind it) or put our insurance costs up. For me, the new limit will make driving a bit less stressful: I will no longer be constantly checking my speedometer, watching for police or speed cameras, or worrying about holding up other traffic or about unsafe overtakes. But don’t expect all the slow movers to suddenly speed up: if we’re fully laden, we won’t be able to go much faster, especially up hills, and some roads are just not safe to do 50mph on in a large truck.

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