Should we increase to an 80mph motorway speed limit?

Heritage Classic Car Insurance research the implications of having a zero-tolerance approach to speed limits and question whether at times, breaking the speed limit is beneficial.

With the latest news drawing our attention to the Bedfordshire Police zero-tolerance approach to exceeding 70mph across the M1 in April 2016, we’ve taken a look at the possibilities of increasing our motorways to an 80mph motorway speed limit in the UK.

Motorists are fully aware of motorway speed restrictions ticking over at 70mph, but did you know that in December 2015, it will have been 50 years since this limit was first introduced? The limit was brought in on an experimental basis and was officially known as the 70mph National Speed Limit. It was brought in after a rise in serious accidents in foggy conditions. The 70mph limit was finally made permanent in 1967, and applied to all ‘de-restricted’ roads at the time. This included but was not limited to motorways and dual carriageways.

Motoring myths – how the 70mph limit came to our motorways

It used to be told that the 70mph restriction came from a speed test set by the new Cobra on the M1 (view more here). The government and police were alarmed by AC testing its new Cobra on the M1 at speeds of up to 180mph.

Are motorways in the UK safe?

Motorways have the lowest crash rates per mile travelled than other road types according to the Department of Transport, 2014. This is due to fewer unexpected hazards and the way in which they are designed. However when crashes do occur the consequences are more likely to be fatal due to the high speed of traffic. Crashes on 70mph roads are more than twice as likely to result in death as crashes on roads with lower speed limits [1].

Speeding and stopping distances on the motorway.

At 80mph stopping distances rise to 122 metres compared with 96 metres at 70mph, this is an increase of 27%. From a survey taken by Direct Line and Brake on Safe Driving [2] , it can be said that 60% of UK drivers break the speed limit by 10mph or more. In the past 12 months the survey also shared that 57% of drivers admitted leaving less than the recommended two-second gap between themselves and the vehicle front when driving on motorways.

If you needed to stop suddenly whilst driving at 70mph on the motorway, you will travel 21 metres while you’re thinking before you hit the brakes. That distance is travelled in less than one second resulting in a total stopping distance of 96 metres. This equates to the length of 21 cars.

Speeding and stopping distances on the motorway.
Speeding and stopping distances on the motorway. 21 cars stopping distance at 70mph

Should we increase to an 80mph motorway speed limit?

Motorway SMALL copyright Highways Agency
Motorway SMALL copyright Highways Agency

The government announced in October 2011 that is would consider a 10mph increase on motorways. Former secretary Philip Hammond suggested an increase in the speed limit to 80mph on motorways. He commented for The Times, “I take the view that we operate in a democracy of policing by consent. If 50% of the population are routinely breaking the law, it’s actually the law that needs looking at”. Philip Hammond claimed the change would bring economic benefits through quicker journey times and that safety worries were mostly alleviated by improvements in vehicle technology since 1965, when the 70mph limit was set.

Looking at the increased fuel consumption and carbon emissions resulting from 80mph from 70mph, to the driver the saved time versus the cost could be the big question. Vehicles travelling at 80mph use 10-20% more fuel than those travelling at 70mph. Adding fuel to the fire here, the 20% increase in emissions is worth pointing out as the UK continually works to meet global objectives.

Taking into account the increase in braking distance from 70mph to 80mph, which increases by 27%, the risks could be considered too high. Research conducted by the Department of Transport [3] predicted that increasing the limit would cause at least 20% more deaths and more serious injuries annually.

There is evidence to suggest that many drivers are more alert and prepared for things if they drive faster, however this is not conclusive and by no means sufficient to compensate for the effect of the speed. Rune Elvik, Chief Research Officer and the Norwegian Centre for Transport Research [4] states “They are not able to override or repeal the laws of physics”.  His model which estimates the effects of the increase from 70mph to 80mph, is likely to be a conservative estimate which poses the question, is increasing the limit worth increasing the death rate by at least 20%?

Across the border- the effects of increased speed limits

In the USA, a report carried out by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that in states, where they raised limits from 65mph to 75mph, the death rates rose by 38% on these roads. In Germany, where the infamous autobahns lie, the death rates on the roads are 75% higher than comparable roads in the UK, according to research carried out by PACTS.

However Mr Hammond wants to put Britain back in the fast lane of global economies and taking a look at European motorway limits it seems that we are some way behind [5].

However Mr Hammond wants to put Britain back in the fast lane of global economies and taking a look at European motorway limits it seems that we are some way behind [5].

France 130km/h (81mph)
Germany 130km/h recommended maximum
Italy 130km/h
Spain 120km/h (75mph)
Portugal 120km/h
Sweden 110km/h (68mph)
Denmark 110km/h

Enforcing the speed limit of motorways.

The Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) and Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, both share concerns that police enforcement could be an issue [6]. With the recent survey carried out by Brake and Direct line finding that six in 10 UK drivers admit breaking motorway speed limits by 10mph or more, the more serious concern is that legalizing today’s unofficial and tolerated 80mph motorway speed limit could create tomorrow’s unofficial 90mph limit.

How about zero tolerance attitudes towards motorway speeders?

From April 2016, and what first delved Heritage Insurance into this debate so deeply, Bedfordshire Police is planning to run a zero-tolerance attitude towards motorway speeders as a result of cuts in funding. This could affect the busiest sections of the M1 and encourage other police forces to follow. The scheme has come from Olly Martins, Bedfordshire police and crime commissioner, who admitted to the Telegraph newspaper [7] that the motivation is financial. He states “if motorists do not like it then they can always stick to the speed limit”. Mr Martins said he had been forced into suggesting the scheme as his force was at financial breaking point and through fining speeding drivers, 25 officers could be kept. Strict enforcement of the speed limit could gain Bedfordshire police £1 million. The plan will be to keep all speeding cameras on motorways across Bedfordshire on permanently. Motorists would then be forced to pay a £100 fine as well as having points added to their license, or could opt instead to attend a speed awareness course which costs £90.

Why was a tolerance on motorways ever allowed?

Under the current system, forces have the discretion to apply leeway around the speed limit, meaning drivers in a 70mph zone are able to travel up to 79mph before being at risk of a fine. The guidelines suggest that the motorist is given 10% + 2mph tolerance for speedo errors and equipment errors [8].

Motorway copyright West Midlands Police
Motorway copyright West Midlands Police

Is it safer to break the speed limit?

In some instances it can be safer to break the speed limit and with changes in April affecting the M1 motorway so dramatically, what the future holds for drivers who opt for the safest option in their situation and receive a fine, is unclear.

“You’re driving along the M1 at 70mph when the lorry that you’re overtaking begins to indicate as if moving into your lane. Should you brake and let it pull out? But what about the traffic behind you? Perhaps instead you stick to 70mph and hope its driver has seen you. Or, do you accelerate in order to get ahead of the lorry, knowing that it will mean briefly exceeding the limit?” [9]

Taking the example above shared by Chris Knapman, the contributing editor for the Telegraph, it would be decidedly better to break the speed limit. However the cost of this to the driver could be £100 fine and points on their licence. The idealism of everybody sticking to 70mph is a wonderful suggestion however it is impractical and potentially at risk of increasing accidents.


[1] https://www.securite-routiere.org/docacrobat/proggrandebretagne2001.pdf

[2] https://www.brake.org.uk/assets/docs/dl_reports/DLreport-Speed-section3-motorways-2014.pdf

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/dec/25/80mph-speed-limit-increase-deaths

[4] https://www.toi.no/staff/elvik-rune-article17618-27.html

[5] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-15116064

[6] https://www.iam.org.uk/images/policy/PDFs/iam_80mph-motorways_june2013.pdf

[7] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/11975971/Motorists-face-zero-tolerance-approach-to-speeding-on-the-motorways.html

[8] https://www.cambs-police.co.uk/roadsafety/docs/201305-uoba-joining-forces-safer-roads.pdf

[9] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/cars/columnists/chris-knapman/why-it-is-sometimes-safer-to-break-the-speed-limit/