It was once perfectly legal to go 185mph on the M1
In a previous article, we took a quick look at how, over the last century or so, the current land speed record came to stand at its current value (763mph). It was, we hope you’ll agree, an interesting journey. So what could be more natural, this week, than to treat you to a similar review of the opposite trend in the world of motoring – the way in which driving speeds have been, over the years, curtailed. We’re talking, in other words, about speed limits. How did we arrive at the speed limits that currently exist (in the UK)?
Once again, it makes an interesting journey. And it’s a Journey that begins over 150 years ago, in 1865, when Jacob Rees-Mogg was just a lad. In those days, cars (known then as “locomotives”) had to be preceded by a pedestrian carrying a red flag. They were subject to a speed limit of 2mph in populated areas and 4mph elsewhere.
But, as we all know, things change. Cars got faster. And limiting them to speeds which allowed a person to walk ahead, defeated the object of having a car in the first place. So in 1896, the speed limit was increased to 14mph and then, in 1903, to 20mph. But this limit couldn’t be easily enforced, as proving that a driver was guilty of speeding was close to impossible (cars didn’t have speedometers). So in 1930, the Government, with a shrug of its metaphorical shoulders, finally yielded to the inevitable (or, at least, politically pragmatic) and introduced the 1930 Road Traffic Act, which did away entirely with speed limits for cars. Theoretically, you could – perfectly legally - go as fast as you liked, wherever you liked (though there were penalties for reckless, careless or dangerous driving).
But this led to a problem. And it was a problem of life and death. Literally. Because, by 1934, there were 4 times as many road-related fatalities per year in the UK as there are today – even though only one-tenth, approximately, of the cars were using the roads! Once again, the Government had to have a serious re-think. The result was the introduction (in 1934) of a 30mph speed limit in built-up areas, as well as the compulsory driving test.
It’s important to note, in the previous sentence, the use of the qualifying phrase ‘built up areas’. Why? Because, while the 30mph limit applied in urban areas, you were still free to drive at any speed you liked on open roads, as long as you did it ‘safely’. Which, let’s face it, sounds like a recipe for motoring anarchy. And it would have been, if production cars in the 1950s and 60s were generally as quick as they are nowadays. Back then, though, the average car was only capable of performance that make today’s Toyota Aygo look like a dragster, so the chaos was relatively constrained.
But, of course, not every car is an average car. And for those that weren’t, this lack of speed limit was a freedom to be revelled in. Take the famous case of Jack Sears, for example. Jack was a member of a team from AC Cars, who, in 1964, were preparing a Cobra Coupe GT in preparation for Le Mans. They wanted to put it through its paces. But where? When a member of the team suggested the M1, his colleagues all glanced at each other enquiringly - ‘Why not?’ their looks said. ‘After all, there’s no law against it.’ Thus it was that, at 4am on 11 June 1964, near Watford Gap, Jack Sears registered a speed of 185 mph, the highest speed ever recorded on a British motorway. The absence of any speed limit meant their test run was perfectly legal.
However, such liberty couldn’t last. And it didn’t. A spate of car accidents during the fog-filled autumn of 1965 led the government to conclude that the crashes were caused by vehicles travelling too fast for the conditions. Advisory bodies suggested that a speed limit be imposed when roads were affected by poor weather conditions (fog, ice, snow) – 70mph was recommended. A four-month trial of this limit began on 22 December 1965, and subsequently extended for another year. In July 1967 a 70mph limit was finally imposed across the country.
So, that’s how the UK arrived at its familiar 30/70 limits. But, really, they’re just arbitrary numbers - of historical, rather than evidential, origins. While other countries agree that speed limits are necessary, they disagree on where those limits should be set. Thus, the speed limit on French motorways, like much of Europe, is 80mph (130kmph). If you want a faster ride, head to Poland where the limit is 85mph (140kmph), while, in Germany, large sections of road have no limits at all. And, as you probably know, some 30% of roads on the Isle of Man are unrestricted, making it a big draw for thrill seekers.
Talking of limits, we don’t have them at Desperateseller.co.uk. Not, at least, on our used cars section. You’ll be glad to hear that you can buy as many as you like! Why not check them out now?