Monday, February 28, 2011

Drive Less Quickly And You'll Have More Time To Think

It's quite amazing to see the reaction to the Spanish government's announcement last week of a 10km reduction in the speed limit on motorways. Anyone might think that the most fundamental of all human rights had been breached by the measure, which was justified as a means of reducing petrol usage. The current limit is being "temporarily" reduced to 110km along with measures to cut train fares in a bid to encourage people to switch to public transport.

Despite the hysteria generated by the announcement it makes very little difference to all but the longest of journeys. A 360km journey will take a terrifying 15 minutes longer once the new limit comes into place on March 7th. In return the country (together with those drivers who obey the limit) gets to spend less on its fuel bill helping the balance of payments at a time when the cost of petrol is rising sharply. In addition we get less contamination and probably some further improvement in accident statistics. Terrible isn't it?

Accusations by opponents of the move that the real intention is to increase income from traffic fines seem to ignore the fairly obvious consequence of less petrol being sold; the government loses significant income from taxes. In any case fines are only available for those who choose to ignore the limit. Always ready for a bit of empty populist rhetoric, the Partido Popular has denounced the measure as being reminiscent of the Soviet Union, and no doubt the same people who claim the anti-smoking law is evidence of creeping dictatorship will be on the case.

The new government in Cataluña had already anticipated the PP's position by lifting an 80km restriction around Barcelona that was working quite well, and counted as one of the few measures to reduce the awful traffic pollution problems. Critics like to claim that the new measure won't work, and it is arguable whether it is sufficient to really make a difference but I'm sure may of the same people made similar claims about the measures which have led to a massive reduction in deaths due to traffic accidents in Spain.

For the boy racers whose favourite activity is to go up to 2 metres from the car in front to try and force them into another lane, any restrictions are an attack on their inalienable right to put other people in danger. I laugh when I see people claiming that the way forward is to educate drivers on how to drive more efficiently, as if those who have supposedly learnt to drive properly to get a license don't forget half of what they have learnt as soon as they get it.

With everything else that is happening you have to wonder about some people's priorities. The economic good times have left this legacy of people who buy expensive, powerful cars and have contempt for anyone who hasn't done the same. Making train fares cheaper is not a bad thing but it won't attract these drivers to switch, they regard public transport as being for losers even though in Madrid at least it is generally excellent and cheap. For the moment.


ejh said...

A 360km journey will take a terrifying 15 minutes longer

Just over sixteen and a half minutes, I make it.

As I spend much of the year driving round Spain, there's a few reasonably-well-informed things I'd like to say on this subject, but it'll have to wait until I have some time at home on Friday...

ejh said...

OK, sorry for the delay.

I find myself a bit baffled by all this: I think there is quite a contrast with the anti-smoking legislation, for instance, which was more drastic, but which perhaps for that very reason, was widely advertised a long time in advance, makes a very clear difference to the way people operate and is being enforced. The 110 kph idea doesn't seem to me to tick any of these boxes.

It's not, of course, a bad idea in itself, but if you're going to do this is really needs to be enforced. Is that likely? Presently, I would conservatively reckon (I don't know if there are official statistics on this) that half or more of all vehicles driving where a 120 kph applies are probably doing 130+. Are these people likely to slow by 20+kph, or even by 10kph so that they are only exceeding the limit by the same amount they are now? Perhaps, but if they don't, then either the new measures are pointless, or they need to be backed up by arrests and fines. Which I don't think is going to happen.

I don't think it much matters that it'll piss off the dickheads: there's nothing you can do to please these people anyway. But it does seem a bit half-baked to me, including the bit about it being temporary, which is not really any way to convince people that you have the will to enforce something controversial. (Compare and contrast the Andalusian bar-owner.)

As far making a time difference is's a little more complicated, because of course you don't necessarily get long stretches of unbroken 120 kph right ow anyway (the intensely soporific Valladolid-Portugal road comes to mind as a partial exception) because of roadworks as well as junctions, slower vehicles and so on. It can be a relief to get on to a faster stretch sometimes, it's not necessarily a thirst for speed, and I won't personally be thinking "oh great, now it's 110 this will cut down the chances of an accident". And it might make a substantially difference to journey times on long trips ,which are of course precisely the sort of journeys where you don't want that to happen. (I have a trip to Asturias early in April, and I may well experience the extra time taken as tiredness and frustration.)

Nothing wrong with 110kph of course - it's essentially the limit in the UK, and I believe in France too, not that that argument will cut any ice with Spanish drivers. But I do think that if they were going to do this, should have been much earlier in the life of the government,so that people had time to get used to it and want to keep it - as it is, you can just imagine Rajoy sweeping it away in the first day of office next year.

Re: bullying tailgaters, by the way, I don't think that this is mostly a problem caused by boy racers, though I'm sure they constitute a certain proportion of them. I associate it much more with older men in powerful cars. I am sure the people who do it think there's nothing wrong with it, as they reckon they're in perfect control: as do the reckless overtakers who scare me even more than the tailgaters.

Graeme said...

The obvious answer to whether the measure is sufficient would be to say then let's reduce the limit to 90km. It's obviously unlikely that everyone is going to observe the new limit, but not so many these days drive way over it and if the majority go at 10km less then the measure has effect. The saving, even on a 1% reduction in fuel consumption, is quite significant especially with the oil price continuing to rise. For those who claim that the aim is to increase income from traffic fines it's worth pointing out that the loss of tax income from less petrol sold far exceeds any likely increase in income from fines.

I was looking yesterday at a document on fast ways to reduce fuel consumption, and short of introducing quite draconian traffic reduction measures there is little else that does the trick so quickly. If we wait for everyone to have the right tyres at the right pressure and to adopt the most efficient driving techniques then oil might already be at $200 a barrel. Of course the root problem which too many drivers are not willing to face up to is that we may already have reached the point where petrol prices will not come down significantly if at all. Of course it will all be the fault of the government.

As for the journey times, a north to south trip across the whole country might take around an hour longer - but that's hardly your average trip. A Rajoy government may get rid of the measure, although I suspect there is an awful lot of things that they have opposed that they will suddenly find they agree with once in office. As the Catalan case has demonstrated, it's an easy populist gesture to your big car(s) owning voters in the burbs.