Why is speeding not a taboo?

A lamppost under thick tree cover, with a 20mph speed limit sign and a banner reading "Welcome to Islington, London's first 20[mph] borough".There’s a video up on the BBC News website asking the above question, namely why speeding is not a taboo as drink driving became as a result of years of public campaigns including regular TV and billboard advertisements. Apparently speeding kills many more people than drunken driving, so it should be at least as much a ‘taboo’ thing that nobody would be seen doing. The argument is ‘supported’ with an appeal to emotion, namely a contribution from a woman who lost both her parents when they were run over by a speeding driver, and towards the end she accompanies some police officers using hand-held speed guns to detect people exceeding a 20mph speed limit and interviews a few drivers and asks them why or if they knew they were speeding. A few did not, but nobody just said they did not believe in the widespread 20mph speed limits that have been imposed by various local authorities, especially in London, with no great public debate.

The video has an air of propaganda about it: it’s softening the public up for more widespread enforcement of the blanket 20mph speed limits which have been imposed not only on minor residential roads and shopping streets (which most would consider quite reasonable) but also on main roads in several London boroughs including nearly all of inner London. I have a suspicion that the real purpose of these limits is to drive traffic off local authority maintained roads and onto the TfL-run Red Routes, much as many weight limits in rural areas seem not to be associated with weak bridges or narrow roads but with a local authority’s desire to reduce wear and tear by forcing heavy vehicles onto a limited number of main roads. Right now we rarely see speed cameras on roads with 20mph speed limits and while people rarely stick to them, in my observation, they do go lower than 30mph which may or may not have been the idea behind them — they have cut speed and thereby road injuries. But expecting everyone to drive at 20mph along main roads is just not reasonable.

Yes, it’s true that being hit by a car can kill or injure someone. Everyone knows that and it’s why we are taught from an early age to take care when crossing the road: to use crossings, wait for the green signal and so on, and (when we are children) to hold the hand of the adult we are with. Roads may not be race-tracks, as the video says, but main roads are also not playgrounds. As drivers, we are taught to look out for pedestrians and places from where they may walk out (e.g. behind cars and especially buses) and gauge our speed for the road conditions as the appropriate speed may be much less than the speed limit. There is no law against a pedestrian crossing the road anywhere they like in this country and the term ‘jaywalking’ is not part of the vocabulary here (quite rightly as in the USA anti-jaywalking laws are used to harass minorities) but there has to be a compromise between pedestrian safety and the need for people to get where they are going. If pedestrian safety really is all that matters, why stop at 20mph and not reduce the speed limit to 10mph?

A poster showing two hands, one holding an old-style British paper driving licence and the other holding a glass of beer, with the words "You can't hold on to both" in between. At the bottom is the slogan "Think you can drink and drive? Think again."And, of course, the video talks of ‘speeding’ but does not distinguish between exceeding speed limits by small amounts and doing so dramatically, when the majority of speeding offences are by small margins and it is possible to be driving above a set limit while still paying attention to the road conditions and potential hazards. The comparison with drinking and driving is not valid because that behaviour impairs your judgement and people would assume that they could drink and drive because they could “handle their drink” (hence the slogan, “think you can drink and drive? Think again”). The dangers of drinking and driving are scientific fact while speeding is speeding because the local authority says so — it does not mean driving too fast for the road conditions but rather above a set limit, which may or may not be set with safety in mind; they may be in response to lobbying, or for entirely unrelated reasons such as noise abatement. The point is that speeding does not always put anyone in danger, while drinking and driving always increases the risk of injury or damage because the driver will be impaired.

So, why is speeding not a taboo “like drunk driving”? Because speeding is not like drunk driving. The majority of drivers do not stick religiously to the speed limit because there is often no reason to do so other than that it is the law. The slogan “drinking and driving wrecks lives” was memorable and effective; “speeding is bad driving” less so, because it’s not true. Speeding on its own is just disobedience, and any attempt to portray it as inherently dangerous behaviour is doomed to fail.

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