So, the Coalition has announced plans to raise the UK’s motorway speed limit to 80mph. Fine. Do that. It won’t make any difference, but hey – just so long as they feel that they’re doing something, I suppose.
To be honest, it doesn’t really matter what the limit is: few of us can get above a crawl much of the time anyhow. For all the headlines as to how bloated fuel prices are keeping our cars cowering behind garage doors there seems to be little actual reduction in road use, and our main arteries are as static as ever around peak times. For those trapped upon them, the cautionary signs entreating us to slow down or reduce speed now are merely cause for bitter, desiccated laughter – pretty much all we can manage in the suffocation of fumes as we sit in neutral waiting for lanes of traffic a mile on to merge.
It should be no great surprise that when finally faced with the sheer incongruity of an open road British drivers feel compelled to attack it with whatever speed their vehicle can muster before rattling. Such a sight takes on the quality of a mirage: impossibly alluring, and surely some kind of trick. It’s this skepticism that drives our speeding habits, a fear that if we spurn the opportunity it will be taken from us, whether by a vengeful god or a horsebox attempting an overtake on a hill.
And so our roads have just two speeds, a binary between a baby’s first steps and a motion blur. There’s nothing in between except the speed-limited Ocado delivery vans and VW campers, exhausts coughing their last into an environment wheezing with despair.
It’s not that the proposed increase is a good idea necessarily, or even a bad one: it’s an irrelevance. And the government know this, just as well as they know that it’s precisely the kind of announcement that makes for good headlines and noisy debate, distracting our attention away from considerably more pressing matters about which they have no ideas and little control. As for Philip Hammond’s suggestion that 80mph ‘would generate economic benefits of hundreds of millions of pounds through shorter journey times’, the illogic is barely worth engaging with. It’s not more speed that we need, it’s less traffic: somehow more of us need to be encouraged away from the queues, whether towards public transport or working from home or some other alternative to commuting, lest we simply hasten our way to another standstill.