You may not remember, but when the internal combustion engine first appeared on some dusty farm track, so alarmed was the government of the day that they brought in legislation to control this menace. The centrepiece was the requirement that the engine must be preceded by a pedestrian carrying a red flag, to warn man and beast alike of impending doom. This restricted the speed to a maximum of four miles an hour, which incidentally is about the average speed of the modern day motor car in urban areas.

Much has happened in the intervening hundred or so years. The horse as a means of transport has gone to the knacker’s yard, six and eight lane highways have carved their way through hill and dale, and the motor car has been transformed into the sleek, all singing all dancing feat of modern engineering. Today’s cars have every conceivable gizmo to make driving a pleasure, and more important, unlike its early predecessor, as safe as houses used to be. Some cars can accelerate from zero to sixty in 3.8 seconds and stop on a penny, so all in all, an awesome creation.

Here in Little Britain, our first motorway was opened in 1961, fittingly called the M1, and connecting London with Birmingham. Even though the car was not as sophisticated as it is today, there was no speed limit, so the sky was the limit. In 1972, with the embattled Prime Minister Ted ‘Grocer’ Heath locked in mortal combat with the miners, the economy crashed, the lights went out, the three day week was introduced, and with no coal, there was a heavy reliance on imported oil and not enough to go round. So to conserve our dwindling resources, the Grocer introduced a speed restriction of 70 mph on all motorways, and there it has remained to this day.

All this brings me seamlessly on to the debate doing the rounds that further speed restrictions are being advocated, reducing the maximum speed, pace motorways, to 50 mph, and in some urban areas, from 30 down to 20 mph. As I understand the debate, this has nothing to do with conserving precious resources, but a vain glorious attempt to reduce accidents on the roads.

The government here in Little Britain is often accused of a ‘nanny’ state, intruding into every aspect of daily life, and this is yet another example of legislating for the sake of it.

Let’s examine the facts. Motorways were built for speed. Whenever I drive on a motorway at 70 mph, I am the slowest car on the road. And why? It’s not just because the modern car can travel comfortably at 100 mph or more, it’s because the modern car can travel at this speed perfectly safely, thanks to modern technology. Of course if you have an accident at 100 mph, it’s likely to be more serious than an accident at 20 mph, but taking that argument to its logical conclusion, you’re better advised to stay at home!

It’s not speed that kills or injures, it’s the judgment of the driver. We already have a plethora of driving offences including dangerous and reckless driving, as well as driving without care and attention, so more than enough ammunition to target the errant driver. Better education and stiffer driving tests may be the way forward, but reducing maximum speeds to arbitrary levels is inviting trouble. Good drivers should know the safe speed to travel, so where they see an open road with a 20 mph speed restriction, few if any are going to observe it, as they can’t see the point. On the rare occasion when a driver does actually reduce his speed to 20 mph, it causes frustration and intemperance in the following drivers, and that’s where judgment flies out the window and road rage takes over. And besides, have you ever driven at 20 mph? It’s quicker to get out and walk!

So let’s leave the red flag where it belongs, in the nineteenth century. Now, where did I put the keys to my Ferrari?

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David is an English barrister, writer, public performer and keynote speaker. His full profile can be found on his website.

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