On this week in 1965: 70mph limit imposed on UK motorways

Transport minister Tom Fraser introduced the limit for a trial period

We take a look at the voices for and against an issue that remains contentious to this day

“Since long before Britain’s first motorway opened in 1958, pleas for an upper speed limit on them have been heard with depressing regularity,” we sighed 58 years ago.

“Now the matter has come up again, and this time it’s [government body] the National Road Safety Council which has reportedly proposed a limit of between 50mph and 70mph after dark.”

“Quite how this has arisen from a series of disastrous concertina accidents [on the M6] when drivers were hampered by fog is difficult to understand,” we continued.

Indeed, the local chief constable had admitted on television that the speeds involved hadn’t been high – less than 30mph, in fact.

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“As regular users of British motorways know, there’s no need for a limit,” we asserted, citing drivers bunching up and staring at their speedometers too much as negative potential consequences.

We were obviously horrified, then, when Labour’s transport minister, Tom Fraser, “jumped in with both feet” and imposed a general speed limit of 70mph and a 30mph one in foggy conditions on a four-month trial basis. 

“Why has this been done?” we asked. “One answer is that no one knows for certain, after years of talk and experiment, whether such a limit will reduce the number or severity of accidents. This [trial] may produce some valuable information.

“Another answer may be that a government whose main claim to fame in the transport field so far has been to add 6d a gallon on petrol and slow down road building felt compelled to make some dramatic move or other.

“Without doubt, too, quite a large and sincere section of the public with little or no experience of driving and no appreciation of the long-term effects will applaud this decision.”

Those effects, we foresaw, would include the multiplication of “that extraordinary individual who likes to cruise in the outer lane at 60mph and utterly refuses to make way for faster traffic, even when he has nothing to overtake”.

“Beyond these first few months, it’s easy to see that the restriction would soon fall into contempt,” we added. “It would be a pity if we returned to the days when the motoring law on speed was openly flouted by all.” Yeah, about that…

We weren’t the only ones who were annoyed and pessimistic. “This is a defeatist policy. I’m convinced it will have no beneficial effect,” scoffed the Conservatives’ shadow transport minister, Sir Martin Redmayne.

“We remain unconvinced on the inconclusive evidence that [it] will achieve any worthwhile road safety improvement,” said the AA.

“Limits haven’t done much good in America, where 47,500 were killed in the last year on the roads – more than in the whole [three years of] the Korean war,” noted IAM test director George Eyles.

“We must try to increase safety by education, effective warning signs, police control etc and not rely on the simple expedient of controlling speed,” posited Jaguar boss Sir William Lyons.

At the end of the trial, Fraser’s successor, Barbara Castle (who couldn’t drive), unexpectedly announced that it would be extended for two months to give the Road Research Laboratory time to compile and analyse the figures.

Something smelled fishy to us… perhaps something the statisticians were trying to cook? Alarmingly, Castle extended the trial period for another 15 months, as “the case was not proven”.

When the lab did eventually release its findings in July 1967, RAC executive vice-chairman Lord Chesham summed it up by saying: “Never have so many statistics been compared with so many variable yardsticks. There are enough red herrings in this report to fill the hold of the largest Grimsby trawler afloat.”

Here’s one telling extract: “The numbers killed or seriously injured as a proportion of the total casualties [on the M1] varied between 38% and 57% between 1960 and 1965, and the value during the trial period (53%) fell within this range.”

A few days later, Castle said the limit would be made permanent.

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