One Change: The growing case for an 80km/h motorway limit
A speed limit is fairer than a fuel tax, which affects the less well-off to a greater degree
Need for speed? Since lockdown, the Dutch government reduced national motorway speeds to 100km/h during the day, while Luxembourg cut itsmaximum motorway speed from 130km/h to 90km/h. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
In February this column explored the issue of reducing one’s motorway driving speed to cut carbon emissions. It was based on a report by the European Environmental Agency that showed slowing to 110 km/h could reduce fuel consumption by 12-18 per cent, and another report by CE Delft, which suggested that dropping to 80 km/h would lower CO2 emissions by 30 per cent. The rates of accidents would also decline and there would be a quantifiable reduction in the tiredness experienced by drivers.
In the intervening months I’ve struggled to reduce my speed, though a sticker on the dashboard sent to me by the 80 Max campaign (80max.ie) has helped remind me to do the right thing. During Lockdown the 80 Max team, who are based in Greystones, managed to raise enough money through making and selling masks to commission a national survey to gauge people’s willingness to reduce speed in an effort to cut greenhouse gases and Nitrogen oxide emissions. A sample group of 1,008 people, controlled for gender, age, social grade and region, were asked if they would be willing to “support a law that reduces the top speed limit in the Republic of Ireland from 120 km/h to 80 km/h (including motorways) as a move to cut these harmful emissions and create safer roads.” A surprising 43 per cent supported the proposal, according to the market research company, Opinions. Admittedly, it was a small sample group, but nevertheless back in 2003, only 37 per cent of people supported a smoking ban, and that was after decades of campaigning.
“Smoking is far more addictive than speed and yet so many of us managed to quit that habit,” says Jane Jackson, the coordinator of the 80 Max campaign. “The stakes are far higher for all of us if we don’t manage to transition to a very low carbon economy by 2030.”
Implementing such a radical change to national speed limits seemed hard to countenance when I wrote about this in February, but the extent of the changes introduced since lockdown have made it more imaginable. On March 16th, the Dutch government reduced national motorway speeds to 100km/h during the day, while Luxembourg has cut its maximum motorway speed from 130km/h to 90km/h. Both transitions went smoothly, without causing additional tailbacks and with general acceptance by society.
A speed limit is also fairer than a fuel tax, which affects the less well-off to a greater degree
In Ireland, we could cut our CO2 emissions by 2 million tonnes annually if we implemented the initiative here, according to the 80 Max campaign. This would represent only 3 per cent of our overall emissions, but it would help to make us all more aware of the impact we are having on the environment and the future health of the planet each time we get behind the wheel.
A speed limit is also fairer than a fuel tax, which affects the less well-off to a greater degree, while allowing those who can afford it continue to drive faster with impunity. The measures would, though, inevitably lengthen journey times, and this would give rise to frustration and perhaps an economic toll as businesses become less productive or efficient. Yet, “Marchetti’s constant” would call some elements of this assumption into question. This principle states that although the forms and speed of transport change over generations the time spent travelling to commute, and to gather and distribute supplies, stays constant. The average daily journey to work or to get supplies has been an hour since the Stone Age. Speeding up doesn’t save us time, it just encourages us to travel further.
So, we never really get to ‘save’ that time promised by greater speed or better roads, we just use it up to go more places more often. Slowing down is definitely frustrating at first, but it encourages us to find ways of having our needs met closer to home – contributing to local economies rather than distant metropolises.
The ideal situation would be if our government followed the lead of the Netherlands and Luxemburg in reducing national speed limits, but in the meantime it is up to us all to start implementing this tangibly beneficial measure. The 80 Max campaign is seeking pledges by citizens to reduce their speed, which should then help to encourage others to make the commitment.