MOTORWAY speed limits hit the headlines this week amid warnings that plans to restrict drivers to 60mph on a 34-mile stretch of the M1 in England would "pave the way" to countrywide reductions.

Stories about motorway speed limits have typically focused on arguments for and against raising the maximum from 70mph to 80mph to bring the UK in line with other European countries.

Loading article content

As recently as last October, research was presented at Road Safety Scotland's annual conference in Dalmahoy, which extrapolated that raising the motorway speed limit in Scotland to 80mph would result in about 20 additional road deaths per year, but that this would be outweighed by the economic benefit to the country in terms of time saved in journeys and so on. Publication of the presentation was initially delayed, amid fears that nefarious transport journalists would seize on a potential controversy, before finally appearing on the Scottish Government-funded agency's website just before Christmas.

To be fair, the conclusion that an 80mph speed limit would kill more people (an increased death toll of 20% according to Department of Transport estimates) but would boost the economy in ways that, at least monetarily, outweighed the cost of those fatalities has been mirrored in previous studies. Critics claim it would also increase obesity by encouraging car journeys and pollution through increased emissions.

Supporters, including former UK Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, state the current limit, introduced in 1965, is out of date for modern vehicles and that increasing the limit would boost jobs and the economy by some £100 million a year.

Examples such as Germany, which has one of the lowest motorway death rates in Europe despite drivers being free to choose their own speeds on the autobahn (though they are advised against exceeding 81mph) are often cited in arguments in favour of an 80mph limit.

Nonetheless, the plans to increase the motorway speed limit in the UK, announced at a Tory party conference in 2011, have been quietly shelved by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, who said in June that the policy was not a priority.

Which brings us back to the 60mph limit. The stretch of road involved runs from Derbyshire to Sheffield, South Yorkshire. It has been targeted for the reduced limit, which will apply between 7am and 7pm seven days a week, in an attempt to reduce pollution and meet European clean air targets.

A consultation on the plan will close on March 3 and if it gets the go-ahead it is believed it will be the first example of speed limits being lowered to comply with environmental legislation. Motoring organisations warned the move was the "thin end of a very large wedge" that could pave the way for a blanket lowering of the motorway speed limit.

The Scottish Government has the power to set speed limits north of the border so changes to motorway speed limits in England and Wales - whether up to 80mph or down to 60mph - would have no direct bearing on Scotland, but it would be likely that a change in either direction would create a pressure for Scots to follow suit.

Perhaps this year's Road Safety Scotland conference could ponder the effects of 60mph motorways in Scotland?