News that the British government had agreed to adopt European plans to fit speed-limiting devices to cars from 2022 is bound to depress anyone who loves driving, given that our enjoyment is largely based on control of our vehicles.
However, those who don’t feel as we do about driving are likely to anticipate what they will see as knee-jerk criticism and dismiss it.
But there are far bigger and better grounds for criticising the speed governor idea than a mere reduction in driving pleasure.
The wholesale reliance on electronics to control a vehicle’s maximum speed, while relying on a human driver for all the other functions – steering, slowing, gearchanging, overtaking, braking (as opposed to pre-collision braking) and sudden reactions such as obstacle avoidance – has very worrying aspects.
Rather than helping to reduce Europe’s 25,000 road deaths each year, it’s quite likely that this system will simply create a whole new variety of accidents. Here are some of the concerns:
• Inattention: Anyone who drives long distances in tightly speed-limited conditions knows about the problem of inattention and its contribution to a driver falling asleep at the wheel. It happens enough on our motorways already, and in wide-open Australia and the US it is a constant problem.
• Poor mapping: Many of our cars already provide guidance to ruling speed limits, although they don’t yet actually cut our cars’ speeds. Very often these readouts are wrong. Who will map every metre of every road correctly, and update it? Who will make the same limits apply to every car, when limits change all the time? Stand by for unexpected rear-end collisions, or people leaving the road, plus a sharp increase in queues and frustrated drivers.
• Variance: Not everyone’s 40mph or 60mph is the same as that of the car driving behind or ahead. In the miles-long convoys that are sure to be created by this – a source of aggravation on their own – frustration is an absolute certainty. And whatever you say about frustration being a mere human frailty, it has huge potential to create head-on collisions as drivers who “can’t take it any more” take chances to get past.
• The ability to drive through the system: It’s said the authorities plan to ‘sell’ this new system to us motorists by making it possible for us to override by pressing harder on the loud pedal. That means that while many of the country’s drivers accept a 50mph limit, many more will learn exactly where and when to go for the override. Result? Further frustration.
• The role of older cars: There are between 25 and 30 million cars on our roads, none fitted with these new devices. Chuck in a few hundred thousand vans and trucks for good measure. At two million new car sales a year, it’ll take 20 years for the car parc to be replaced. For the first decade of the new regime, unrestricted cars will outweigh those with speed limiters. It’s anyone’s guess how this will play out in the traffic, but the presumption must be that it won’t be pretty. As far as the driver of a 2020 Ford Focus is concerned, the driver of the 2023 model will be making a lot of unwarranted and unpredictable speed reductions. More rear-end collisions beckon.