The Absurdity of Speed Laws.
Car Magazine, September 2003, Gavin Green

I was flicking through The Times the other day when I spotted a photo of a convicted man, handcuffed to a burly copper, being led away to jail. The wrong-doer had a bull neck, short hair, guilty eyes, snub nose and was wearing a black sweat shirt and dirty jeans.

The story occupied more than half a page, at the top of page five. This was a high-profile offence, obviously. As I was dwelling on the dastardly deeds and fate of Jason McAllister, 27, a car dealer from Aberdeen, it hit me. If he's guilty, then maybe so am I. McAllister was jailed for doing 156mph. It was the fastest-ever recorded car speeding offence in Britain, eclipsing the previous record - 155mph by a Porsche driver in 1990.

The Times' story was full of pious pundits sounding off, including the police and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. "This level of speed is absolutely outrageous and puts at risk every other person and user of the road at the time," said Sheriff Kevin Veal, who handed out the sentence.

McAllister, who was driving a BMW M3, was jailed for five months and banned from driving for four years.

It happened on the dual carriageway A90 between Aberdeen and Dundee, in the evening. I do not know this road well, but a Scottish friend who uses it most days tells me: "It is a superb road, full of long straights where you can see for miles." There was clearly little or no other traffic, otherwise McAllister would have been unable to do 156. And if he had been swerving around slower cars, I have little doubt The Times' man would have told me.

Like McAllister, I have driven at 156mph on the public road. Unlike him, I did it legally. I could do it again tomorrow, and get little more than a smile and a friendly wave from any German policeman that I happened to pass.

Many of my journalistic friends have exceeded 150 on German autobahns, too. Responsible car companies frequently launch high-powered vehicles to responsible journalists, representing responsible newspapers and magazines, in Germany so that we scribblers can legally test cars at such 'absolutely outrageous' speeds. The Germans, as far as I know, have just as much respect for health and safety as Britons. Most German drivers live to ripe old ages. German autobahns, incidentally, have a better safety record than 65mph-limited US interstates.

Let's assume that McAllister is as skilled behind the wheel as an average British motoring hack (not hard) or an average German. Let's assume his M3 was in good condition. These cars, after all, are designed to do 156mph legally and safely in their country of manufacture and design.

Let's also acknowledge that McAllister knowingly and irresponsibly broke the law, while we motoring writers (and Germans) do 156mph on autobahns with a clear conscience and clean licenses.

But, morally, what is the difference? Was he driving any more dangerously than I was - and surely 'danger' is the only priority in motoring law enforcement? Was McAllister's 156mph 'absolutely outrageous', while my 156mph was lawful and socially responsible?

Speed is a funny old thing. One man's dash is another man's dawdle. Some of us feel safe at 150mph; some of us do not. I do not favor a German-style speed free-for-all on our motorways. I make no excuses for McAllister's behavior. He flagrantly broke the law. (He was also clocked doing 120mph in a temporary 40mph 'road work' zone. He was also driving while banned for an earlier speeding offence.)

Equally, the UK 70mph national limit is a joke. Everybody does 80-90mph on the motorway, and every cop knows that it is safe and reasonable to do so. The situation is fine now, where sensible British police officers turn a blind eye to the over-70s and under-90s. But when motorway digital speed cameras start to pry, then what?

At about the same time as McAllister's conviction. Ken Livingstone called for the limit on residential streets in the UK capital to be cut from 30 to 20mph. He is right

It is more dangerous to drive (legally) at 30mph down a narrow urban street than it is for a good driver to do 156mph on a deserted dual carriageway in a BMW M3.

The law, on speeding, is an ass. The pity is that no politician, senior policeman, Scottish sheriff, newspaper or road safety group has got the guts or gumption to challenge it.

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