Why Did the First UK Motorways Have No Speed Limit?

History Hit

3 mins

20 Nov 2018

On 22 December 1965 a temporary maximum speed limit of 70mph (112kmph) was introduced on Britain’s motorways. The experiment initially lasted four months but the limit was made permanent in 1967.

A history of speed

This wasn’t Britain’s first speed limit. In 1865 motor vehicles were limited to 4mph, 2mph in residential areas. By 1903 the speed limit had risen to 20mph. But in 1930 the Road Traffic Act abolished speed limits for cars altogether.

The decision was made because the current limits were flouted so openly that it brought the law into contempt. The Act also introduced the driving offences of dangerous, reckless and careless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

An increase in deaths on the road forced the government to think again. In 1935 a 30mph limit was introduced for cars in built-up areas, a limit that remains to this day. But away from these areas, drivers were still free to go at whatever speed they liked.

When the first motorways were built, starting with the Preston Bypass (later part of the M6) in December 1958, they were unrestricted.

Early motorway construction in May 1958.

Obviously, the average car in the 1960s wasn’t capable of travelling all that fast. However there were some exceptions. On 11 June, 1964 a team from AC Cars met at 4am at the Blue Boar Services (Watford Gap) on the M1. They were there to speed-test a Cobra Coupe GT in preparation for Le Mans.

They didn’t have a long enough stretch of straight test track to check the top speed of the car so they opted to use a section of the motorway instead. The driver, Jack Sears, registered speeds of 185 mph during the run, the highest speed ever recorded on a British motorway. The absence of any speed limit meant their test run was perfectly legal.

Two policemen approached the team at the services afterwards, but only to get a closer look at the car!

A number of car crashes during the foggy autumn of 1965 led the government to hold consultations with the police and the National Road Safety Advisory Council. They concluded the crashes were caused by vehicles travelling too fast for the conditions.

It was suggested that a speed limit be used during periods when the road was affected by fog, ice or snow, and that an overall maximum speed limit of 70 mph should be tested out. The four-month trial began at midday on 22 December 1965.

One of the BAT twin-cylinder motorcyles entered into the inaugural 1907 Isle of Man TT, often considered one of the most dangerous motorsport events in the world.

Around the world in speed limits

Britain’s motorways are still governed by the 70mph limit. But countries around the world have adopted different speed restrictions – and some none at all! The speed limit on motorways in France, akin to a large part of Europe, is 130kmph (80mph).

For a faster ride, head to Poland where the limit is 140kmph (85mph). But true speed demons should try driving the autobahns of Germany, where large sections of road have no limits at all.

Motoring organisations in Germany question the value of speed limits in bettering safety standards, and point to the fact that Germany’s road casualty figures are on a parr with neighbouring France.

On the Isle of Man, in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland, thirty percent of national roads are unrestricted, making it a big draw for thrill seekers. Meanwhile in Australia’s Northern Territory, several sections of the epic Stuart Highway, which runs through the Red Centre of the country, have no speed limits.

Facts from THINK!

The law in the UK: You must not drive faster than the speed limit for the type of road and your type of vehicle. The speed limit is the absolute maximum and doesn’t mean it’s safe to drive at this speed in all conditions.

In 2013, 3,064 people were killed or seriously injured in the UK in crashes where speed was a factor.

References

Autocar: ‘The day Jack Sears hit 185mph on the M1 motorway’

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