A case for making speed limiters in cars mandatory

Those were the days: 1960. Image: Getty.

Speeding is deadly. The faster you’re going the less reaction time you have to avoid that other car, that debris in the road, that absent minded pedestrian. The UK government estimates that, each year, “excessive and inappropriate” speed kills 1,200 people and injures over 100,000 more.

This is all pretty obvious – but most people still speed. In 2011 almost half of cars monitored exceeded a 30mph speed limit, while a similar number broke the 70mph national speed limit on a motorway. Legally the limits set for particular roads are the “absolute maximum” vehicles should be travelling - yet one in two drivers are still going faster.

It all comes down to capability: unless a car is on its last wheels, it’s going to be able to drive faster than 70mph. In fact, you’d be extremely unlikely to buy a car that couldn’t go past 70 – even though there is no need for the average driver to travel this fast.

But there is a technical solution: devices that cars can be fitted with, to prevent them from breaking speed limits. Called ‘limiters’ or ‘governors’ (perhaps appealing to the East End gangster demographic), these cap the top speed of a vehicle by restricting the fuel supply to the engine.

Some larger vehicles already have mandatory limiters built in, preventing any naughtiness with the speed restrictions. If you see any vehicle with more than eight passenger seats, or any goods vehicles weighing more than 3.5 tonnes, they will have a top speed of 70mph. These limiters were brought in to reduce accidents. So why not cars, too?

Actually, as things stand, most cars already have do have speed limiters. But they’re not there to reduce the driver or other road users, though. No, existing limiters are there to protect the car: sustained high speeds can damage the engine and tires. Engines also work much less efficiently at speed, meaning more pollution and a greater environmental impact.

These inbuilt limits are set way above the highest UK national speed limit, however. There is no uniform standard, but German car manufacturers may limit the cars they produce at 155mph, while Japanese producers limit them at 112mph.

The thresholds for the speed limiter can be easily changed in modern computerised cars. Since 2012, the Ford MyKey has allowed parents to limit their kids’ speeding tendencies. Going one step further, the Nissan GT-R automatically raises the top speed when the GPS detects it has been brought onto a race track. GPS data on speed limits is already available and in use by sat-nav devices. If this technology could be coordinated, an entire country’s speed could be controlled automatically.

Yes, compulsory speed limiters would kill the £20m a year profits that the Treasury currently makes from speed cameras – but no Chancellor is going to argue against mandatory limiters if it means saving thousands of lives every year. Besides, safer roads would reduce the £470m per year spent on medical and ambulance costs for road traffic accidents. Savings would also be made in building and maintenance of speed enforcement infrastructure, such as speed bumps, chicanes and other bizarre street obstacles.

The UK led the way with the first ever speed limit in 1832. Let’s revive that streak of innovation and be the first country to require cars to be fitted with GPS speed limiters. One day, a 30mph will really mean a 30mph limit – and our roads will be safer for it.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.