Are England’s motorways ‘unfit’ for 80mph speed limit?

Posted on May 24th, 2012 by GEM Motoring Assist

New report highlights how the poor condition of England’s motorways make raising the speed limit a dangerous idea

A road sign which has been illegally adjusted to show 80mph

A road sign which has been illegally adjusted to show 80mph. Photo by Shaun McDonald.

Take a look out of your car window while driving along the motorway and you are likely to see dreary stretches of hard shoulder, blurry lines of silver crash barriers and perhaps a few trees separating the countryside from the road.

For the most part it’s ‘scenery’ which you are travelling too fast to appreciate but perhaps you should take a closer look – the view from your car window could tell you a lot about your chances of survival if you crash your car.

That is one of the findings of ‘Unfit for 80’: a report by the Road Safety Foundation which was released on May 14th 2012 in order to examine the feasibility of government plans to raise the motorway speed limit from 70mph to 80mph.

Crash barriers

The authors of ‘Unfit for 80’ inspected 4,350 miles of motorway in England and found that only half of the network had crash barriers; safety features which are designed to prevent a car hurtling off the motorway at high speed.

As barriers can increase motorists’ chances of surviving a crash by absorbing some of a car’s energy, it is worrying that the report found that many barriers have been rendered ineffective by not being repaired properly after a previous accident.


And while there is a distinct lack of functioning barriers on many parts of the motorway, the presence of trees have created more problems: some have been planted too close to motorways and increased the risk of motorists suffering high-impact crashes when their car leaves the road.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Dr. Joanne Marden, director of the Road Safety Foundation, said: “At motorway speeds, the car alone cannot protect the human body. The car has to work with the motorway’s protection systems such as safety fencing to absorb high speed crash energies.”

Dr. Marden added that vehicles technology has improved enough in recent years to offer “4-star or 5-star crash protection”. Yet she believes that “too many of our motorways rate only 3-star”.

This is a problem that the Road Safety Foundation believes should be addressed urgently; the organisation recommends that all motorways are brought up to a minimum 4-star standard by 2020.

Economic benefits of raising the limit

Economic benefits, rather than road safety considerations, seem to be the motivation behind the government’s desire to raise the motorway speed limit from 70mph to 80mph. As recently as last autumn, then-Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond mentioned the “huge economic benefits” that can be created by shortening journey times.

The Road Safety Foundation is aware of Mr Hammond’s reasoning but its report concludes that “drivers who want to are already travelling at 80mph whenever they can”.

According to the foundation: “Economic benefits only arise if 80 means 90 and opinion surveys show no public support for that.”

David Williams MBE, CEO of road safety association GEM Motoring Assist believes that are many sound reasons to resist raising the limit.

He said: “Both in terms of safety and environmental impact the proposal to raise the limit cannot be justified. At a time when there are so many vital transport and road safety issues to be resolved it is puzzling that the government is wasting time, effort and money on such a marginal matter.”

Mr William also agrees that there is little public appetite for changing the current limit.

He said: “GEM members are constantly reminding me of the very poor state of the nation’s roads, where surfaces, markings, signs etc. are in a worse condition than ever before. Far better we tackle these matters before worrying about increasing motorway speed limits from 70mph to 80mph just to provide a limited benefit to a small minority of drivers.”

What’s your opinion?

Do you think the motorway limit should be raised to 80mph or stay as it is?

Do you think drivers generally respect the current limit? Are our motorways ‘fit’ for 80?

Please contact us by leaving a comment in the box at the foot of this article. We’d love to hear your opinions!

James Christie writes for road safety association GEM Motoring Assist: provider of vehicle recovery and breakdown cover.