Heavy traffic – HGV speed limits on the up

Don’t be surprised if you soon see a heavy goods vehicle (HGV) speeding down the road much faster than you’d normally expect.
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The government has just announced plans to increase the speed limit for HGVs of more than 7.5 tonnes from 40mph to 50mph on single carriageways. The change is likely to become law in early 2015 and covers roads outside built-up areas in England and Wales – unless specific lower speed limits are in place.

Fast & furious

The government in fact seems determined to get HGVs moving faster: it has also announced a consultation period to up the national speed limit for HGVs on dual carriageways from 50mph to 60mph. If it gets the go ahead, this new speed limit would also apply from 2015.

A OK?

So what’s the rush? The government argues that the change in the speed limit is long overdue and would reduce delays and congestion, particularly on busy single carriageway A-roads. It would also bring the UK in line with other European countries such as the Netherlands and Norway. In addition, evidence suggests that lorry drivers regularly break the current limit. The government says 75% of HGV drivers pay no heed to the speed restrictions at any particular time. Who knew they were such law-breakers? Gosh. Still, it seems a curious sort of logic to increase the limit to accommodate those who were flouting the regulations.

Surprise, surprise

Surprisingly, the increase in the speed limit for HGVs could improve road safety. It might be counterintuitive, but some experts believe the closure of the 20 mph gap between the lorry and car speed limits on single carriageways will cut dangerous overtaking, and therefore accidents. Malcolm Bingham, head of road network management policy at the Freight Transport Association (FTA), has a clear interest in the debate. But here’s what he says: “The FTA strongly supports this decision. We believe there is evidence confirming that road safety will be improved if the differential between HGVs and other road users is reduced. “Many motorists do not understand that the limit for lorries is only 40mph and this can lead to frustration and, on occasion, risky overtaking.”
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Danish pass trials

The RAC, which also backs the higher speed limit, cites a two-year trial in Denmark. When speed limits on some Danish rural roads went up from 80km/h (50mph) to 90km/h (56mph), it led to fewer collisions and fewer deaths. An RAC spokesperson says: “The move has helped reduce frustration among faster drivers, and stopped them from performing dangerous overtaking manoeuvres.”

Braking bad

Road safety campaigners are not convinced. Julie Townsend, deputy chief executive of Brake, the road safety charity, says: "We are disappointed and concerned by this announcement. Put simply, when vehicles travel faster, it takes them longer to stop, increasing risk. “It is very well evidenced that increases in speed equal increases in crashes and casualties. “At the same time, the road safety justification for this move is dubious. We are not aware of evidence it will help tackle risky overtaking, which should be addressed through other means.” Brake acknowledges that “pronounced” speed differences between traffic can pose a risk, but argues that the way to solve the problem is through driver education and better enforcement of the existing speed limits.
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Blighted Blighty

There’s also the issue of rural communities, which can be blighted by fast traffic. There’s nothing can spoil a countryside idyll quite like a 10-tonne lorry rattling through the lanes at 50 mph. Still, the government seems quite determined. It is also keen to stress its safety credentials, urging councils to use powers granted last year to restrict traffic to 30mph, 40mph or 50mph where necessary because of pedestrians and cyclists, the road location or layout.

Truck stops

It points out, too, that the change will usher in tougher procedures and sanctions for lorry drivers caught exceeding the new speed limits. The coalition is also consulting on changes to improve enforcement against tired HGV drivers, including those based abroad. Of course, only time will tell if a higher speed limit will result in a lower accident rate. But let’s hope for safety’s sake that the government has done its research. Otherwise we could all be very sorry.
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