A Life in a Year – 25th November, Motorway Speed Limits

In the early winter of 1965 there was a lot of fog and a series of multiple crashes on Britain’s new motorways and on 25 November the government announced that a temporary 30 mph speed limit would be applied to sections of motorway affected by fog, ice or snow and that a general maximum speed limit of 70 mph would be applied to all otherwise unrestricted roads, including motorways, for a trial period of four months starting just before Christmas.

This really hadn’t been a problem when motorways were first opened because most cars prior to the 1960s would have had difficulty getting up to seventy miles an hour in the first place let alone maintaining this speed for any distance without blowing the engine to kingdom come but by mid-decade they were starting to get faster.

It is a frightening fact that some car designers and racing car drivers were also using the M1 motorway to conduct speed trials and early one morning in June 1964 a man called Jack Sears drove an AC Cobra Coupé at 185 miles an hour in a test drive on the northern carriageway of the motorway.  The press picked the story up and soon there was a crusade for a speed limit.

The history of the speed limit is quite interesting, the first speed limit was the ten miles per hour limit introduced by the Locomotive Act, or Red Flag Act, of 1861 but in 1865, the revised Locomotive Act reduced the speed limit still further to four miles per hour in the country and two miles per hour in towns, which, let’s be honest is slower than average walking speed and sort of missed the point of automotive power.  This Act additionally required a man with a red flag or a lantern to walk sixty yards ahead of each vehicle, effectively enforcing a walking pace, and warning horse drawn traffic of the approach of a self-propelled machine.  In 1896 a new Locomotive Act replaced that of 1865 and the increase of the speed limit to a positively reckless fourteen miles per hour has been commemorated each year since 1927 by the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run.

The motorway speed limit of seventy miles per hour was made permanent in 1970.  There are currently plans to review the limit and there is speculation that it will be raised to 80mph.   In France and Italy the maximum speed is 81mph while in Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Belgium it is 75mph. Parts of the German autobahn network have no speed limit at all.

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