Speeding kills, we’re told. But in the right circumstances, exceeding the limit is no bad thing. Take motorways: few drivers seem to stick to 70mph, yet most journeys are perfectly safe. Indeed, when I’m behind the wheel, I like putting my foot down as much as the next driver. Fortunately in the 30 years since I passed my test I’ve been pretty lucky; I’ve clocked up two or three speed awareness courses, but somehow I’ve managed to keep hold of my licence.
Yet despite my run ins with the DVLA, I firmly believe there’s a case for 20mph limits in certain areas. This new speed limit has been rolled out on residential roads in Wales and parts of London, sparking a backlash from motorists. Perhaps, though, telling motorists like me to slow down is no bad thing.
Why? Because sadly we have become a nation of people who drive to the limits set for us, and some drivers then become fractious when they can’t. Rather than being encouraged to use our discretion, we like to follow guidance. Thus we determine the fate of milk not by smelling it but by reading the ‘use by’ date. Or we dial 111 and sit in a queue for a call centre instead of treating our children for some minor injury using our own judgement.
Telling motorists like me to slow down is no bad thing.
In short, our initiative has been eroded by decades of insidious if well-meaning safety-related advice. The result is that many of us have become infantilised. The dreaded words ‘health and safety’ have stymied our previously innate sense of agency.
Which is why speed limits matter. Because you can’t expect people to drive to the conditions any more or necessarily make a rational assessment of the traffic situation. Instead many people see that ‘it’s a 30mph’ and expect to be able to do it willy-nilly, just like the way they throw away a perfectly edible piece of chicken.
And that’s why, if you happen to live in a town like I do – England’s smallest, Manningtree in North Essex (it’s so small you could carpet it, to borrow the joke from Arthur) – you would see the urgent need for a 20mph speed limit.
At the narrowest – the gap between our little Tesco and the charity shop – the high street in Manningtree is just three strides wide, so perhaps eight or nine feet, with narrow pavements either side. As a result, when a car goes by at 30mph – the ostensible limit – it feels like you’re a spectator at Silverstone, but without the crash barriers.
In other words, it’s completely and utterly inappropriate to drive at 30mph there, yet quite a lot of drivers do, especially in the evening when the relative lack of other cars encourages some to stick the foot down. That’s when it becomes dangerous.
It’s a small miracle that no one has, to my knowledge, been killed on this stretch of road, and it’s surely only a matter of time until it happens. It’s a similar story for the rest of the roads in our tiny town, a place laid out when the Tudors were gadding about and the widest thing on the roads was the width of a pair of cart wheels.
Because I’ve got two young children, I became member of the town council and then I joined a campaign to get our town recategorised as a 20mph zone. Thanks to the brilliant efforts and determination of the group we got the backing of the town council which then submitted a request to the county council, supported by the county councillor, to implement the change. (It all took about six months, and it’s still up in the air; our fingers are crossed). But hopefully by reducing the speed threshold to 20mph it will at least make drivers think.
Manningtree’s saving grace is a narrow 90 degree turn at the end of the high street – nature’s speed bump, but not every village or town is so lucky. And that’s why, much as we all might hate it, there is an unanswerable case for the judicious imposition of 20mph speed limits.
Our acclimatisation to instruction and reliance on guidance rather than individual discretion coupled with faster, larger cars and our ever increasing population – 67.7 million now share our small island – mean that we have no choice but to adjust speed limits more precisely. The truth is our parameters of decision-making have been so narrowed that many of us are now unnerved when we are not told what to do. Hence there are directions on soap and people happily pour away millions of pints of perfectly drinkable milk each year. Of course we need 20mph zones.