Why can cars break the speed limit?

road danger

Why do we allow the sale of motorised vehicles capable of breaking local and national speed limits?

Nobody would suggest that cars driven within speed limits present no road danger, but we have yet to hear a rational argument for why cars need the ability to exceed the speed limit.

Four in 10 drivers admit they sometimes break 30 mph speed limits by at least 10 mph. A quarter (24%) admitted to doing this regularly, at least once a month. These statistics exclude those who prefer to keep their law breaking under wraps.

Road traffic law in Britain is elastic – one man in Britain continues to drive legally having accrued 62 points on his licence – and there is little consistency in its application. A 10 per cent ‘buffer’ applied by the police legitimises speeding despite the fact most car speedos deliberately over-read.

Someone all too familiar with this fact is chief constable Anthony Bangham, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on road policing, who this week suggested that the law on speed limits should be rigorously enforced. His view prompted much derision, including the AA, RAC and Association of British Drivers, who accused him of ‘prioritising money over safety’.

The view that rigorous enforcement of speed limits somehow increases road danger is driver lobby doublethink; the suggestion drivers would become preoccupied with speedometers to such an extent they’d be more of a danger than when speeding, clearly nonsense.

An emotional response to a rational question

Barack Obama made numerous attempts during his tenure as president to restrict the sale of fully-automatic assault rifles. While firing a machine gun is undoubtedly an invigorating experience for those who own them, should weapons so frequently used to massacre innocent people be widely available simply because they represent a perceived personal freedom? After all, radical change for the better is possible.

On 13 March 1996, Thomas Hamilton walked into the gym at Dunblane primary school and shot dead 16 six-year-old children and their teacher. Very soon after, and to our very great credit, we in Britain severely restricted private ownership of guns. There has not been a mass gun killing here since then.

In the last month, five people waiting at bus stops have been killed by speeding drivers who mounted the footpath. Four were children. Science suggests these children, and countless others, would have survived had the drivers responsible for their deaths been unable to exceed a 20 mph urban speed limit.

The technology to restrict vehicle speed to the local limit is readily available, but at present in Britain, speeding is socially accepted – not only legitimised by the 10 per cent ‘buffer’ applied before a penalty is imposed, but openly feted by the media – a situation that doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon.

ETA breakdown cover comparison

An insurance company like no other

The ETA was formed as a breakdown company for drivers unwilling to subscribe to the hackneyed views on road safety such as those expressed below.

AA and RAC reaction to speed limits

If you drive, but at the same time believe Britain can be a safer and cleaner by tackling road danger, join us today. www.eta.co.uk






  1. Francis King


    “On 13 March 1996, Thomas Hamilton walked into the gym at Dunblane primary school and shot dead 16 six-year-old children and their teacher. Very soon after, and to our very great credit, we in Britain banned the private ownership of most handguns and rifles.”

    No, that is not what happened. Most types of firearm are still available with a license. Centre-fire handguns and revolvers were very largely removed from private ownership, although some regions of the UK still have them, and a version called a carbine is widely available and used. Black powder revolvers are still available. Rifles were not affected by Dunblane – these changes were made after Hungerford in 1987, when centre-fire semi-automatic rifles were largely removed from private ownership. Neither measure seems to have affected anything much.

    “In the last month, five people waiting at bus stops have been killed by speeding drivers who mounted the footpath. Four were children. Science suggests these children, and countless others, would have survived had the drivers responsible for their deaths been unable to exceed a 20 mph urban speed limit.”

    Sure, but there are easier measures, such as pedestrian crossings (especially pedestrian islands) to help people cross the roads, and bollards where pedestrian concentrations are high.

    I support 20 mph speed limits but for a different reason. A system where bicycles at 20 mph have to manouevre with cars doing 35 mph in the same piece of road space is intrinsically dangerous. Much safer would be to have cars limited to 20 mph and faster electric bicycles.

    • The ETA


      “Neither measure seems to have affected anything much” – except, as far as we know, there had been no gun massacre in Britain since the change in law.

    • Chris


      “Sure, but there are easier measures such as pedestrian crossings (especially pedestrian islands) to help people cross the roads, and bollards where pedestrian concentrations are high.”
      – so what about people walking on pavements – do we put bollards along all the kerbs to stop motor vehicles mounting the footpath? Unintended consequences – pedestrian islands, also known as pedestrian refuges – usually narrow the remaining road width, with the result that motor vehicles starting to overtake cyclists move over to the left to avoid the island and take out the cyclist (I have been involved in such a situation several times).

      • Philip Nalpanis


        Bollards along kerbs would also prevent terrorist attacks using motor vehicles but do we want that kind of clutter?

        Automatic cars offer the prospect of cars that both keep to the roadway and observe the speed limit.

  2. John Holiday


    I work with a Community Speed Watch group & we regularly record 30% of passing vehicles exceeding the limit, & this is only those exceeding the limit by 10%+1mph.
    When is society going to accept that speeding is as anti social as drink driving?
    The majority of so called ‘accidents’ involve excessive speed.
    It is time Government took a firmer stance.

    • Philip Nalpanis


      It would be interesting to know how many of those accidents that involve ‘excessive speed’ are within the ‘10%+1mph’ band and how many in excess of this – and the relative proportions of killed, serious injuries and minor injuries within each of those bands. Then resources that are not unlimited (be it police prosecuting, signage, cameras etc.) can be deployed where they will be most effective.

  3. Rex North


    I am a motorist. If I drive in excess of the speed limit I am breaking the law. The so-called 10% tolerance is a simple tool to make sure that motorists should not need to ‘keep looking at their speedometers’ as the AA & motoring lobby claim, and thus sensible. Anything over that and there is no excuse ; the law should be applied and enforced. How can anyone have 62 points and get away with it – that is ridiculous.

  4. Chris Adair


    The issue isn’t about breaking speed limits its about dangerous irresponsible driving. The 5 people killed at the bus stop were not killed because a careful driver was travelling at 21mph instead of 20mph, it was caused by a driver who had absolutely no concern for the law and was driving dangerously.
    Applying a more rigorous approach to issuing speeding fines will not touch the irresponsible drivers, often driven by uninsured drivers, and often in a stolen vehicle. These people wouldn’t even receive the speeding ticket. They will still be out there driving with impunity.
    However being penalised for going over the speed limit by 1mph will just increase driver neurosis, punish the majority of careful drivers and again take drivers attention away from the road and back to their speedometers. Which I think is a not a 100% good thing.
    I don’t deny that travelling under 30 in a 30 is a good thing, I always try and adhere to this, but having the threat of immediate ticket for going 1mph over this could well lead to looking at the speedo just when a child runs out from behind a car into the path of a vehicle.
    I also ride a motorbike, where you have absolutely no distractions – no phone no passengers, no music system, and your life is on the line every second. I’d guess that the majority of road collisions are caused by the driver not paying attention, like the lorry driver watching porn on his phone, and ploughing into 3 cars, killing all occupants.
    This is where the police need to focus their attention.

  5. Jim Clark


    A few years before I retired I owned a small car a younger colleague owned the same make and model and was the butt of jokes by another colleague who owned a big car with a reputation for speed and power, the younger colleague confided in me that he was getting a bit down by this and asked advice. My advice was wait until he starts when there are a few other colleagues about then say I don’t need a big car, I’m in a stable relationship and my partner is quite happy with me. I don’t need to drive a substitute for my for my manhood (not quite that word but same meaning)..
    That’s why big fast cars are popular just look at bully boy big kid Clarkson. Me I’ve always bought smallish cars, my present one has a speed limiter on it as soon as I approach a 30 limit I press the button. But before that I always kept to the limit, Licence since mid 1960s not one point ever. When I was working my job entailed much travel. If I can do it so can everyone else.
    Whilst I’m on what happened to the woman who was seen eating her breakfast whilst driving a few moths ago, nothing I bet..

  6. Richard Tanner


    I try like hell to adhere to the speed limits for two reasons. One is that I don’t want all the problems associated with a speeding fine and the second is that I realise that they, speed limits, are put there for a reason ( albeit sometimes with strange logic).

    However, despite the fact that my speedo reads 3mph fast I do very occasionally stray by an mph or two to exceed the limits. This can be for a number of reasons, sometimes even having to concentrate more than normal on the cyclist wandering about on the road ahead of me. This lasts for perhaps a few seconds or so and unless motorists are prepared to drive well below the posted limits or spend too much time watching their speedos it will continue.

    I am reluctant to believe the motorist who claims never to stray over the limit without watching the speedo. I have quite a few years driving experience and cannot do that.

    I would, however, agree that the guy with 62 points should lose his licence and perhaps his car as well. He is never going to change despite the number of warnings he has received.

  7. Mark Iliff


    The basic problem here is that the main point of cars is speed: if we didn’t mind getting there slower we’d walk, cycle or use public transport. Travelling fast in a car is like drinking in a pub… the central purpose of the activity. Until we look that square in the face, we’re ducking the issue.

    All collisions are caused by excessive speed: at least one party was still moving at the moment of impact. So excessive speed is a bad thing. But it’s also context-dependent. It lacks credibility to pretend that a number – chosen from the 6 available – displayed by the side of the road represents a safe speed for all vehicles, drivers and conditions.

    Every time a driver encounters a long stretch of speed limit that doesn’t match the perceived risks, it either undermines the credibility of the system further or reduces the driver’s confidence in their ability to judge the conditions. Neither result is conducive to minimising risk for road users.

  8. Ian Stewart


    Fit speed limiters to all cars, but not ones that the driver has any control over. Instead limiters that are autonomously controlled by a signal emitted when a car enters a 30mph zone for example, and the car picks this up and can only do 30. Same at schools where a 20 mph limit would apply. Drivers are clearly totally incapable of complying with speed limits, and the statistics quoted above particularly that 4 in 10 drivers exceed the limit occasionally is patently nonsense. All you have to do is drive around any town at the legal limit, or set your cruise control to 70mph on the motorway and count the vehicles that pass you. I guarantee you have a hard job keeping up with the count. Even at 56mph hardly a lorry stays behind you. Many towns are poised to introduce 20mph limits throughout the urban areas and a system such as limiters will be essential. If drivers can’t stick to 30 because they perceive it as too slow they are never going to stick to a pedestrian 20, and without adequate police officers to enforce speeding laws, automation (which we are constantly told by Government is the future) must be applied.

  9. Tim Sinclair


    Vehicle built-in speed limiters a ludicrous idea. Just drive to a different country… say France where m-ways are 80mph+ . Until the day when each zone (from village 20mph upwards) in every country is electronically linked to each vehicle, the idea is not even worth airing.

    • David


      Technically possible NOW by attaching your speed limiter to your GPS. Every car with cruise control and a built in Sat Nav could be programmed to never break the speed limit, whether they were on a private industrial site (speed limit generally 15mph) outside a school at starting or finishing time (20mph). Town (30mph or 40kmh or 50kmh depending upon country) UK Motorway (70mph) French Motorway (130kmh) German Motorway (130kmh). Yes, German Autobahns have speed limits. They are not strictly enforcable, but any driver exceeding them who is involved in an accident is automatically deemed to be at fault.

  10. Phil


    The technology already exists to report on speeding and hit people where it hurts, in their wallet. Fit Black boxes to all cars, the excess charges might make insurance cheaper for the rest of us

  11. Jim Clark


    Manual speed limiters can be set at any speed. as can cruise control. my cruise control is set at 60 mph (it can be set at any speed) on to-days roads with repairs and holdups it’s often difficult to travel for long at that speed.
    My SatNav beeps at me when I am in a limit even when I’m keeping to the limit and often several hundred yards either side of the limit area.

  12. Mark Kuramoto-Headey


    I’ve driven trucks that had, as an adjunct to their cruise control, a max. speed limit setting. I found these very useful (once I’d figured out how to set them!) as I could set them to the speed limit and concentrate on the road. Although my car doesn’t have a cruise control, many modern cars do and I cannot see it being difficult to program them for max.speed as well.

  13. eddie white


    Until we in this country see road death as what it is, murder with a lethal weapon,and treat it as such, it will continue. The Dutch learned this in the 70s, mass protests got the laws changed

  14. Shaun Linnell


    It would be very cheap and easy to make cars unable to exceed speed limits using sat nav and electronic speed control.

    Then we could phase out speed bumps and the need for cameras.

    Can you guess what is holding back that technology?

Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Your name and email are required.