The European Commission is proposing that all new cars be fitted with speed limiting devices, and is even considering a requirement for limiters to be retro-fitted to cars already on the road.
This could be the greatest change to the motoring landscape in the UK since the implementation of the permanent 70mph limit in 1965 and the arrival of the compulsory seat belt law in 1983, although it would appear there are a few hurdles yet to be negotiated.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has indicated strong resistance to what a Government source called a “Big Brother” policy, but I wonder how long that resistance can be maintained in the face of overwhelming support elsewhere in the EU.
Give us a steering wheel and three pedals and we’re OK - we know what each one does and that if we make a mess of it then it’s our own fault."
The driving force behind the measure is the desire to reduce the number of deaths from vehicle collisions, which across the EU as a whole regularly exceed 30,000 a year.
A noble enough aim of course, but in the UK 2012 saw the lowest death toll for vehicle collisions since 1926. The fall to 1,754 fatalities suggests that something over here is going in the right direction, especially when you factor in the ever-increasing number of road users in the UK.
There’s also a bigger problem with the whole idea of speed limiters. That problem is us drivers. Give us a steering wheel and three pedals and we’re OK - we know what each one does and that if we make a mess of it then it’s our own fault.
But once technology comes into play the lines of responsibility blur. Human nature means the greater the level of intervention by the car itself, the greater the potential for confusion, error and accidents.
We are already becoming increasingly reliant on cars to tell us when there is problem. A decent socket set and a weekly check-up used to be enough to keep your car on the road. Now we’ve got on-board diagnostics – if a light flashes on the dashboard most people have no other choice than to head to the dealer to find out what it means and how much it’ll cost.
Even professional drivers fall foul to over-reliance on technology, if the frequent tabloid tales of truckers being sent down narrow country lanes by their trusty satnavs are anything to go by.
Speed limiters would cause the same problem. Rather than keeping an eye on your speed or – heaven forefend – using your own judgement to choose a speed appropriate to the conditions, we will naturally rely on computers to keep our speed to a limit prescribed as being safe. The reality, however, is more complicated than that.
When we get behind the wheel we have to take responsibility for our actions and their consequences."
Although you will be trundling along at the presumed safe speed of 30mph, part of your control over the vehicle is reduced and it will be even harder to maintain concentration and look out for potential hazards. Your brain will start to wander elsewhere because it has very little to do, and unless your car also happens to have a collision avoidance system you’re potentially in greater danger of being in an accident.
The irony is that fully-automated cars that require zero input from their occupants – other than being told where to go – also have full responsibility for what happens and so will be almost faultlessly safe when they eventually become a reality on our streets.
When we get behind the wheel we have to take responsibility for our actions and their consequences. Speed limiters are a compromise between the two, and the more divorced a driver is from the action the less likely he or she is to make the right decision.
There’s a very old saying that sums up the whole situation very neatly - to assume makes an ass out of you and me, and a car with a speed limiter encourages the driver to assume the speed they’re limited to is safe. The unfortunate reality is that it is far more complicated than that…
Matt Joy is the Motoring Editor on BT.com and he will be choosing his own speed, appropriate to the road conditions, just like the Police do.