Road safety campaigners and environmental pressure groups have been united in condemning government plans to increase the speed limit on Britain’s motorways, with concerns including that it will lead to an increase in the number of people killed on Britain's roads.
Secretary for State for Transport Philip Hammond had been due to announce the plans next week at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester next week.
However, the minister revealed his intentions last night after the proposals had been leaked.
It is envisaged that the new speed limit will come into force in 2013, following a period of consultation, while in a concession to road safety campaigners, there is likely to be an increase in the number of 20mph zones in urban areas.
Earlier this week, motoring journalist and TV presenter said in his preface to the RAC’s Report on Motoring 2011 that “the sense of abandonment felt by UK motorists has never been as acute as it is today.”
However, according to the Guardian, one of the reasons behind the proposed change is a conscious attempt by the current government, unlike its predecessors, to be seen to be on the side of the motorist.
The sense of entitlement that is bound to provoke in some motorists will be of concern to those looking to promote alternative forms of transport such as walking and cycling, which have vulnerable user groups in the first place.
"Britain's roads should be the arteries of a healthy economy and cars are a vital lifeline for many," said Mr Hammond, quoted in the Guardian, adding that the former Labour goverments’s "shortsighted and misguided war on the motorist" had resulted in drivers being penalised.
Mr Hammond outlined pro-motorist measures that the government had already implemented, saying that it had done away with the M4 bus lane and reduced funding for “money-making speed cameras” – a move that was followed by a 50% increase in deaths on the county’s roads after cameras were switched off in Oxfordshire.
He added that it had also “announced new measures to crack down on boy racers and reckless drivers while standing up for the decent majority.
"Now it is time to put Britain back in the fast lane of global economies and look again at the motorway speed limit which is nearly 50 years old, and out of date thanks to huge advances in safety and motoring technology,” he continued.
"Increasing the motorway speed limit to 80mph would generate economic benefits of hundreds of millions of pounds through shorter journey times. So we will consult later this year on raising the limit to get Britain moving."
According to the government, around one in two drivers – 49 per cent – currently break the 70mph speed limit on motorways, which coupled with what it says are improvements in road safety justifies increasing the limit to 80mph.
With the RAC Report on Motoring having found that the cost of fuel is one of the biggest problems drivers perceive at the moment, less fuel efficiency at higher speeds means that the proposed new speed limit may lead to some drivers facing increased costs, however.
Emma Gibson, senior transport campaigner at Greenpeace, told the Guardian: "The Saudi oil minister will rub his hands with glee when he learns of Philip Hammond's decision.
"At a time when North Sea oil production is going down and we are ever more reliant upon unstable regimes and fragile environments to fuel our cars, the transport secretary's decision will raise oil consumption and carbon emissions when we need to cut both."
The Guardian reports that the proposed increase in the speed limit was approved after opposition from climate change secretary, Chris Huhne, who believes it will see a increase in fuel consumption and pollution, the health secretary, Andrew Lansley, whose department fears a rise in casualties on the roads.
That latter point was echoed by Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, who said: "There are good reasons for making 80 the new 70, and good reasons not to.
“Drivers travelling that 10mph quicker might reach their destination sooner, but will use about 20% more fuel and emit 20% more CO2.
"There is also likely to be a slight increase in road casualties."
Amy Aeron-Thomas of the road safety charity RoadPeace was more forthright in her condemnation of the proposals, telling the Mirror: “We are extremely disappointed by Philip Hammond’s decision to increase the limit.
“Last year 1,857 people died on UK roads and this figure will only increase if the Government’s proposals are accepted.
“I don’t think anyone believes that changing the speed limit to 80mph will make themotorways any safer.
“It may save a few motorists some time – but it may also cost them their lives.”
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