The best way to reform motorways is to
abolish the speed limit

The use of chauffer-driven ministerial cars and its cost to the taxpayer is an issue which raises its head every now and then on slow news days and those occasions when people simply want to have a dig at ministers as being ‘out of touch’ and ‘thinking they’re better than the rest of us’.

I generally incline towards sympathy for said ministers, perhaps against my better judgement, as I imagine when you’re worked as hard as they are the last thing you want to do is drive yourself around the nightmare that is London’s road system or, as the populists would have it, get the Tube. Or even, heaven forbid, a bus.

People may argue they work just as hard, which may be true, and I suppose the trappings of ministerial office come from the days when being a politician was seen as a public service – i.e. when many actually saw a reduction in their incomes by joining the government (incidentally this is exactly what William Hague did when he rejoined the front bench).

No, my gravest concern about the ministerial car is that when you’re used to being driven about, you may forget what it’s actually like to be a motorist. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to glancing over the government’s latest motoring ‘crackdown’, anyway.

While it’s a wonderful thing that texting while driving – something which is becoming disturbingly common among a minority of idiots – is being taken more seriously, the majority of the proposals are either overly bureaucratic, unworkable or just plain wrong.

I was disgruntled, in particular, by Mail Online‘s typically triumphalist announcement that those who ‘hog the middle lane’ would face £100 fines and three penalty points in an on-the-spot penalty (which all good liberals and libertarians ought to oppose, anyway, as they bypass the courts and confer arbitrary power on police officer).

Anyone who regularly drives on the motorways will know that the second lane is ‘hogged’ because the first is invariably full of people driving at 60mph and even, in my experience, 50mph (which must surely be regarded as dangerous driving). Overtaking merely to rejoin the first lane is a fruitless exercise as one would only rejoin a long snake of traffic held up by another slow driver.

It would be unfair for motorists wishing to drive faster than 60mph to pressure or harass those who don’t, particularly as slow drivers tend to be elderly, and this is why we already see self-regulation on the motorways with regard to lane use. In my experience, those driving at 60-70mph stick to the first lane, 70-80mph the second and 80mph+ the third. It is a classic example of individuals collectively re-writing rules (and laws) along more rational lines than those drawn up in a Whitehall office or the chamber of the House of Commons.

Trust in the reasoning power of individuals and the wisdom of crowds has not been particularly strong in Britain, at least since the war, but Germany remains in contrast a bastion of good, sober, Teutonic common sense. The Bundesrepublik has no universal speed limit and about 50 per cent of the Autobahn has no limit whatsoever. Furthermore, almost every country in Europe has its universal speed limit in excess of our own.

Given most drivers break the speed limit on the motorways, the current cap is another example of a pointless piece of legislation bringing the whole body of the law into disrepute. Interestingly, this was also the feeling of former Liberal Lord Chancellor, Viscount Buckmaster, in the 1930s.

On January 1, 1931, the existing limit of 20mph was absolished as, in Lord Buckmaster’s words it ‘was so universally disobeyed that its maintenance brought the law into contempt.’ Road deaths subsequently dropped from 7,305 in 1930 to 6,502 in 1935. In an attempt to further reduce fatalities, however, Lord Hore-Belisha reintroduced a limit, this time set at 30mph, in 1935 – which consequently saw deaths increase to 8,609 by 1940.

The reasoning, to my mind, is obvious – when people spend more time watching their speedometer than the road, they’re wont to make errors, speed cameras having a similar effect. But self-regulation is already occurring on British motorways – let us increase confidence in the law, stop wasting police time and follow the wisdom of the Germans by abolishing the speed limit altogether.