Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Politics Of Speed: The motorway speed limit debate

The Spanish Government's decision to introduce a lower speed limit on motorways as a means of cutting petrol and diesel consumption has not met with universal approval. To the voices of critics who believe it is merely a smokescreen to try and increase revenue from speeding fines now come those of business.

The reduction in the speed limit from 120 to 110 kph, to be implemented from 7 March, is intended to be a temporary measure, one to be brought in because of concerns regarding oil supply from north Africa. President Zapatero has reiterated his hope that it will indeed be temporary. However, having been introduced, might such a temporary measure, especially if it appears to be successful - in different ways - become permanent?

Tráfico, which refuses to be drawn on the savings that the speed limit change might bring about (such a technical issue is nothing to do with Tráfico), has, nevertheless, indicated that the ten kilometre reduction would "substantially" lower the severity of accidents, adding that this severity would be further reduced were the speed limit to be set at 100 kph.

From this, one can see that what is meant to be a measure introduced for a specific purpose - saving petrol - has already become the focus of debate for other matters to do with driving. It may well be that a permanent change comes about, through the back door, because of reasons unrelated to the purpose of the 110 kph limit.

The objections of business in Mallorca centre on the impact on commercial road users. The president of the association of taxi drivers has, for example, said that it will result in a loss of revenue for drivers whose journeys will now take longer. He may have a point, but taxi drivers, as well as other road users, face all manner of factors which influence journey times, especially during the main tourism season. One is the sheer volume of traffic, another is alterations to road layouts and the introduction of lower speed limits in urban areas.

In Puerto Alcúdia, as an example, the carretera (highway) that runs parallel to the coast is now, generally speaking, a slower and safer road than it used to be. Whereas one used to feel that whenever one took a car onto Mallorcan roads it was a case of dicing with the probability of accident or death, it now feels altogether safer.

The safety aspect, though, is one that clouds the issue, as it is clearly not meant to be the reason for the speed limit reduction. But if Tráfico, a far from uninfluential voice, has its way, then it is likely to become the reason, adding to the PR problem that the government faces with the implementation of the ten-kilometre cut.

In addition to the accusation that this is all just a front for bumping up revenue from fines, is a belief that the savings claimed by the government (some 1,400 million euros a year) are a fabrication. Again, there is some justification for being sceptical, as the actual amount of petrol consumed by a driver is influenced by factors other than speed alone, such as acceleration versus maintaining a cruising speed and low tyre pressures. And as for Tráfico's argument about the severity of accidents, do ten kilometres per hour really make that much difference? You can surely be killed or badly injured at 110 kph as easily as you can at 120 kph. Or maybe you can't be; I'll bow to Tráfico's expertise in the matter.

However, it's probably worth putting this into some context. The 120 kph limit is higher than the 70 mph limit on British motorways. At 110 kph, it would be slightly lower, by a factor of 1.7 miles per hour. Objections to the reduction seem somewhat spurious, when one makes this sort of comparison. This said though, the British limit is one of the lowest in Europe, and the British transport minister, Philip Hammond, has hinted that the limit could be raised to 80 mph. And why? To increase productivity. Which brings you back to the objections from Mallorcan business.

To place the argument in a safety context, the number of deaths from road collisions in Spain is almost double that of the UK, but simply attributing these to speed is to overlook other factors, while they also overlook a downward trend in road deaths. In the Balearics, the number of deaths has fallen significantly since the turn of the century - from 149 in 2001 to 48 in 2009. The figure increased in 2010 - to 56.

But rather than speed alone, many of these were attributed to "distractions", such as using a mobile or fiddling with a sat-nav. Reducing the speed limit might not, because of these other factors, bring about falls in road accidents. Indeed, it may mean the opposite. There was a previous cut to the speed limit, to 100 kph in the mid-70s, one that was brought in for the same reasons as the latest one - oil supply. The number of accidents increased.

The debate about the change to the speed limit should be confined to the reason for its introduction, and this alone. But if the debate is to be extended, to cover not just speed but also safety and styles of driving, then it needs to also be extended to roads other than motorways; to some of the carreteras, especially the older ones in Mallorca. It is these which are the island's most dangerous roads.

Any comments to please.

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