There is a lot of talk in media about raising or lowering speed limits. An article that really got our attention was one featured on Piston Heads regarding Damon Hill’s thoughts on the matter.
Talking about that article for a moment, the journo does an excellent job of giving an alternative view. I think his point of rasing the level of the lowest common denominator is right on point.
Going back to this article lowering speed limits making roads safer.
This is a common perception but on the other hand you have many people saying lower speed limits are more dangerous because people switch off.
Given the conflict of opinion we thought we would carry out our own little experiment to see what the facts really are.
I took it upon myself to do the research and this is the method I used.
The baseline. By and large I am one of the quickest drivers on the road and by this I mean very few cars overtake me during an average journey.
How does this feel? In a word safe, I am alert at all times, I am constantly analysing the horizon for possible hazards and I am constantly judging the next action of the cars around me by looking at the language of the cars.
At no time do I believe I am putting other road users in danger and if I believe I have forced another road user to change their driving by braking or swerving then I consider that a complete failure on my part. Needless to say I do not interfere with the driving of other people regularly. If it happens once a month it is too much for me.
So from this level I decided for a period of 3 months that I would not exceed 60 mph at any time and that I would not use more than 80% throttle at any time. I would also attempt to improve my fuel economy by 30%. All these factors led to my driving slowing dramatically. From being one of the fastest cars on the road I became one of the slowest.
The first 2 months
I’ll be honest, the first couple of months were difficult. Not only was my patience put to the test constantly I also found the driving more difficult and stressful.
For example driving in the slow lane leads to a lot more lane changing than simply sitting in the fast lane overtaking people. In the slow lane I was constantly looking in the mirror as well as judging the speed of cars in front. In short it seemed driving slowly needed double the effort.
In the first two months I was beginning to think the lower speed limit argument was the way to go. If anything it led to driving with even more care plus any accident would have been at a lower speed. It seemed a no brainer.
However something interesting started to happen going into the third month.
Whereas at the start I would drive at 60 mph on the motorway regardless and if a car pulled into my lane and forced me to slow down by even 1 mph I would be overtaking them, after 2 months I started to stop caring.
Whereas before I was obsessed with maintaining that 60 mph, as time went on I became more and more flexible with the speed I drove at. If a lorry pulled onto the motorway I would not immediately pull out to overtake it, I became more and more willing to simply let my speed drop to match the lorry and if the lorry was driving less than 60 mph I would simply sit behind, slipstream and watch my fuel consumptive improve.
I was completely conscious of my increased patience. Not only was I getting vastly better fuel consumption the stress levels of driving reduced massively. Whereas at the start slow driving slowly was more stressful than normal driving, after a couple of months I found this situation reversed.
So this reduced stress level continued into the 3rd month and driving slowly became normal and I was completely comfortable with it.
However toward the end of the third month I started to notice something worrying. Even though my stress levels were reduced and even though I was driving even slower than my self-imposed limit, I began to notice that I was becoming more and more likely to be involved in an accident.
As time went on I would say I was getting closer to more accidents than I ever was when driving quickly.
Let me explain.
In no way was I the instigator of these potential accidents. What was happening was that I was simply not prepared for unexpected movements by other drivers or by changing road conditions.
Whereas driving normally, ie quickly, I was anticipating everything that I could see in front of me, from directly in front of the car to the horizon.
However during the 3rd month I found unexpected things happening in front of me and these unexpected things were happening closer and closer to my car.
In other words I was noticing these events later and later.
I am now into the fourth month and while these unexpected events have not been so severe that I have had to take avoiding action, the vehicles are getting closer to my car before I notice them. Needless to say, I have reverted back to my previous driving style.
I believe this situation would have continued to get worse until I eventually had an accident. I was simply becoming less and less aware of what was happening around me.
This brings up an interesting question. If I was involved in an accident because of another driver making an unexpected manoeuver in front of me, would I have been at fault for not avoiding the car?
Specifically, if someone had pulled over in front of me to pull off the motorway and had slowed down in my lane, would it be my fault if they did this and caused an accident or would it have been the fault of the other driver for pulling in front of me and braking?
If the other driver has created the situation that led to the accident would it be my fault that I did not take avoiding action to prevent the accident? Whose fault would it be?
This is not a question I am going to get into in more detail, instead I want to discuss what was happening with my reduced awareness of the road around me.
Looking at my experience I believe there is a certain amount of stimulation humans require. If the driver is not getting the stimulation from driving then the driver will fill the vacuum with other stimulation, for example day dreaming, loud music, talking to a passenger, looking at the scenery etc etc.
In my case, my lower self-imposed speed limit led to me filling the stimulation void with looking out the window and thinking about other things, other than what was happening around me.
While this looking out the window and day dreaming did not increase my chances of causing an accident it did make me massively more likely to be involved in an accident caused by someone else doing something unexpected.
So did this make the roads safer?
Given that I do not believe my driving caused anyone to take avoiding action when driving fast I do not believe it made the roads any safer when I was driving slower.
On the other hand I was not much more likely to be involved in accident caused by other drivers when I drove slower and was not aware of the actions of other drivers.
In short, in my case, the roads were more dangerous simply because I was less equipped to deal with the unexpected behaviour of other drivers.
As mentioned above, is that my fault or the fault of the driver doing something unexpected?
Should drivers be expected to take avoiding action caused by other drivers or should other drivers not force other drivers to take avoiding action?
I am sure that there are thousands of people out there who are day dreaming when they are driving. The only answer to this situation is that they simply do not want to focus 100% of their attention on the road and want to fill their mind with additional things when driving.
Either that is simply what they want or they believe that driving at the speed they feel comfortable with would lead to them breaking the law (or the speed they would drive at would be looked down on by other drivers).
Whether it be the law issue or the social issue of driving I would say either one is created by the government through low speed limits.
So does lower speed limits make roads safer? In my case the answer is a definite no.
If other drivers drive slower does it make them safer? Again I would have to say no.
There are two fundamental issue that cause accidents in my experience
1. Drivers not anticipating the actions of other road users.
2. Drivers doing manuevers (intentionally or unintentionally) which require other drivers to take avoiding action, whether it be steering or breaking, however gentle or severe.
Does lowering speed limits help either of these factors?
In the case of point 1 – No, lower speed limits will not help at all and if anything lower speed limits will make the situation worse.
In the case of point 2 – Lower speed limits could partially help. Lower speed limits would lead to drivers doing manoeuvres which require reaction by other drivers at lower speeds leading to accidents which are less severe.
With regards to helping people take avoiding action, lower speed limits will not help in anyway and if anything will lead to accidents being more prevalent. Avoiding action is down to awareness and not speed.
So what is the answer?
The one obvious answer that would address all the problems we found is training.
With regards to point 1 – Training would allow people to anticipate the actions of other road users and anticipate their actions further in advance. Reducing accidents.
With regards to point 2 – Better training would reduce the amount of unpredicted maneuvers on the road and training would also allow people to take appropriate avoiding action.
In my experiment road accidents are down to drivers making unpredictable maneuvers and people not predicting the actions of other road users far enough in advance.
Speed has very little to do with accidents. Accidents have everything to do with training. In short driver training is the answer to improving road safety.
Reducing speed limits on the other hand has massive potential to increase the number of accidents. Not only do reduced speed limits not address the core cause of accidents, lower speed limits actually exasperate the causes of accidents.
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