Given the extensive research that connects dangerous driving with alarming personality traits, it is always enlightening to see who speaks up for speed, currently by attacking the introduction of 20mph limits in residential roads.
Last week the leader of the house, Penny Mordaunt, described the default 20mph limit just introduced in built-up areas of Wales as “absolutely insane”. She will be aware that 20mph limits are known significantly to reduce road casualties. Transport for London reports a 25% reduction in death or serious injury following their introduction in parts of the capital.
“Crazy,” Mordaunt said, noting that Welsh Labour was responsible. Vote Tory and the English contribution to the national traffic death count could not, after it increased in 2022, be in safer hands.
For the Times, also giving advance warning to Labour of its sympathies, traffic mortality barely merits consideration. “The main benefit of the car is that it confers on the user a thing called speed,” it said in a Reaper-pleasing leader, dismissing the Welsh reduction as “unnecessary and oppressive”. The Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford’s reward, for adjusting speed limits to a level where more pedestrians will live, was to be mocked as a pitiful “nanny-in-chief”. “For an automobile to be worth the purchase price it is advisable that its velocity generally exceeds that of a walking human being,” the newspaper counsels, from an office where walking speeds presumably touch 19mph: “This is another freedom casually seized.”
One benefit of the Welsh ban is the expected saving of £100m in the first year from fewer fatalities and casualties.
Jeremy Clarkson, the Meghan-hater and celebrity motoring correspondent ejected from the BBC’s Top Gear after attacking a colleague, is similarly reluctant to recognise that a still popular delusion – that this form of transport stands for individual liberty – is a reason speed limits exist. “Some people will always drive too fast because they are loonies,” he concedes, favouring the technical term.
Research has associated dangerous driving with the “dark triad” of negative traits (Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism). But only “lefties”, we learn, would want to address this difficulty – since the driving test doesn’t screen out the numerous, mostly male “loonies” – with what Clarkson depicts as a slippery slope of wilful anti-car retribution. “Why not ban cars and make us hop everywhere?” he has demanded in the Sun: rational arguments for maintaining more lethal speed limits are, as the Times also demonstrated, thin on the ground.
But, since he asks, wouldn’t it be simpler if lefties started with programmes such as Top Gear and The Grand Tour, where Clarkson and his colleagues have for years helped cultivate, with a fervour beyond anything now allowed in advertising, driving ambitions that end up being played out by young men on residential roads, later in hospitals?
One benefit of the Welsh ban – since up to 10 fewer deaths and 2,000 prevented injuries is not enough to persuade the Mordaunt-minded – is the expected saving of £100m in the first year from fewer fatalities and casualties. For the police and medics spared the trauma of clearing up after Clarkson’s loonies, and of breaking the news to relatives, the benefit is harder to price.
It testifies to the programmes’ commitment to this project that horrifying injuries sustained by their presenters have not noticeably tempered delirium about going fast: strictly non-cautionary daredevilry dominates the current front page of Top Gear’s online magazine. The road-legal Ariel Atom 4R is, Top Gear thrillingly reports, “a bonkers loon that just wants to have fun”. So, far from sounding subdued after the recent reappearance of Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff (who suffered severe facial injuries in a high-speed accident while filming), Top Gear’s head of car testing, Ollie Marriage, reports that “there is a feeling with fast Atoms that the only people really capable of operating them are probably astronauts”. The car, he quips, is “capable of handing out as much of a facial rearrangement as Tyson Fury”.
It’s easier to pull out into traffic, there’s more time to react, the speed comes to seem not just normal but desirable
For as long as such enthusiasts and their allies in pro-driver organisations keep the old advertising dreams alive, it seems optimistic for the same people to argue that skilful motorists need no guidance from humble road signs. Other than, it is piously caveatted, outside schools. Current indignation over the 20mph limit, like previous complaints about prioritising cyclists, confirms that avoidable road deaths – when they’re not those of tragically slain tots – are widely classified as an ignorable, lesser class of extinction. Not like death by drowning, say, or of neglect, or because of knives or dangerous dogs. Something should definitely be done about all of those. The campaign to reduce traffic deaths to zero has a long way to go.
If it is any comfort to the motorists suffering the Welsh lefty slow-driving horror, I’m among those who now love 20mph zones, to the point that 30 limits allowing vehicles to blast through submissive estates and villages seem, to borrow from Mordaunt, insane. For pedestrians, the advantages are obvious: you see drivers forced to notice your existence, you’re safer if hit, there is more time to cross, the world seems a tiny bit more livable. As a driver, although nothing compares with being less likely to kill someone by accident, the resentful tailgating eventually subsides into more soothing conditions: it’s easier to pull out into traffic, there’s more time to react, the speed comes to seem not just normal but, for a lot of us, desirable. And although I have seen top motoring authorities doubt the possibility, even non-expert drivers like me can learn to drive at 20mph without staring fixedly at the speedometer. Unless it’s just a gift. But this “freedom casually seized” can, admittedly, increase some journey times. Research puts it at an average 63 seconds.
If that eats into the time some drivers would otherwise spend holding up swords or hating the Duchess of Sussex, so be it.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist
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