Fri 29 Mar 2019 18.25 GMT
Speeding, one of the pleasures of modern life, will soon become technologically impossible. We will be well rid of it
Driving fast on a clear road is for many people one of the pleasures of modern life. It seems to express all the feelings of power and autonomy that the daily grind so cruelly denies us. Speed limits then become just another petty restriction to be shoved aside by people glorying in their proper freedom. But now, it seems, all this is to come to an end. A directive approved by the European commission, which will apply in the UK whether or not we leave the EU, will require all new cars sold after 2022 to contain devices that will discourage drivers from speeding, either by limiting the effect of the accelerator pedal or simply by nagging them as seatbelt warnings do today. This technology already exists and was in fact widely welcomed by the motoring press when it appeared on the mass market Ford Focus.
Once it becomes mandatory in all new cars though, we can expect resistance to increase. It is almost impossible to construct a good argument against the technological enforcement of existing law, but this won’t stop people trying. One motoring journalist has already suggested that drivers will be so frustrated to find others are observing the speed limit that they will overtake them recklessly – and that will of course be the fault of the new technology, not the overtaking driver.
Speed limits are held to be an infringement of personal liberty in a way that only some drug laws are, and they are at present even more widely flouted. This is bad for two reasons. The most obvious is safety. Speed does kill. Other things being equal, a collision will be more dangerous at higher speeds. Arguments about driver skill are irrelevant here. For any given degree of skill, higher speeds give less time to react. Then there is the environmental argument: so long as cars are powered by non-renewable resources, whether directly or indirectly, the extra energy they use when driving faster must contribute to climate change. From the driver’s point of view, these are irrelevant externalities but everyone, driver or not, must also live on this burning planet.
Perhaps the best arguments are those that concentrate on the hazards of automation more generally. There is a recognised tendency for drivers to put too much trust in automated systems, or to be bored into inattention by their apparent reliability. This has led to a couple of fatal crashes in the US. But those were the result of systems that offer to steer the car as well as to control its speed. It is difficult to imagine such problems of lethal boredom arising on the crowded twisty roads of Europe.
The speed limitations are only part of the package of measures proposed. They may not even be the most important. It’s possible that the most significant will be the mandatory introduction of data recorders, like aeroplane black boxes, which can be interrogated after crashes to find their cause. The data will be for the most part anonymised and temporary, but this will help to make both cars and drivers safer.