Another in my series of posts attempting to debunk the anti-speed-camera arguments of safespeed.org.uk.
Attitude, driver skill and reponsibility rank high among Safespeed's prescription for road safety. They're not so keen on speed limits, though. They claim: "There's a tendency these days to think that vehicle speed problems in general will be solved by speed limits or by speed limit enforcement. They will not. Too much speed limit enforcement and emphasis is already leading to a reduced tendency for drivers to slow down when necessary." (source)
They argue that given the freedom to develop their driving skills, people will drive responsibly. However, they cite no evidence for this. It could be true for more experienced drivers, but it is young people who are the most likely to crash, precisely because they have not developed the ability to judge risk. The Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) report that young drivers crash because of "inexperience and poor judgement in more difficult driving conditions" (source). Young drivers are also more concerned with impressing their mates than driving responsibly. The same IAM report says "factors such as alcohol and peer pressure affect where and how young people drive". It seems unlikely that the driving standards of young people will improve if they are encouraged to drive faster by higher speed limits.
Meanwhile at the other end of the spectrum, you have elderly drivers, who are also a high crash risk. It's not responsibility or experience that is lacking in this group. Elderly drivers' senses - sight and hearing - may be impaired as may their reaction times. Do you really want them driving faster?
Now you could argue that without speed limits, drivers are free to select a speed that is appropriate to road conditions. However, that assumes all drivers are capable of doing so, and wish to do so. I've already identified above that young drivers lack experience and judgement, so their ability to determine a safe speed is questionable. Even amongst more experienced drivers, there are different ideas about what is an appropriate speed. You have aggressive drivers, or simply those in a hurry, who will drive faster. Careful drivers, drivers of larger and slower vehicles, those who wish to save fuel and some elderly drivers, will drive slower. It is as much speed differences as speed itself that causes crashes. For a car that is driving 30MPH faster than other traffic, cars in front become a serious hazard. Overtakes are particularly dangerous, and you get more overtakes where there is a spread of vehicle speeds. The more you encourage a speed differential between vehicles, the more hazardous situations you will generate.
It's a nice idea that your average driver aspires to become more skilled and is only held back by low speed limits, but there's no evidence to support it. Indeed, there is evidence that many drivers are deluded about how skilful they are. McCormick, Walkey and Green (1986) asked 178 participants to evaluate their position on eight different dimensions relating to driving skill (examples include the "dangerous-safe" dimension and the "considerate-inconsiderate" dimension. Only a small minority rated themselves as below average (the midpoint of the dimension scale) at any point, and when all eight dimensions were considered together it was found that almost 80% of participants had evaluated themselves as being above the average driver. Recent Department of Transport research (as reported in the Telegraph) said of drivers convicted of motoring offences that "when there is damage or an injury involved it is often interpreted [by the driver] as the fault of someone or something else...The results of the interviews do suggest that these more serious driving offenders see their penalties as a result of bad luck or overemphasis by society on motoring offending rather than due to illegal or dangerous driving on their part".
At Safe Speed, they claim "It is certain that we can improve road safety by improving the road safety culture". They suggest introducing incentives for higher-level driver training. I happen to agree with both of these ideas, but I also believe they are not sufficient. Consciencious drivers should be encouraged to improve their skills, but there is a substantial minority of drivers who are inattentive, selfish, inconsiderate and irresponsible. Those drivers are responsible for a disproportionate number of crashes, and for such drivers, it is only the threat of licence removal that moderates their driving behaviour. It's also naive to think that everyone aspires to self-improvement. For every person who reads books, plays a sport competitively or learns a musical instrument, there's someone who sits in front of the telly every night.
In summary, in Safe Speed's fantasy world, the roads are populated by drivers who, were it not for speed limits, would all be safe, skilful, responsible and attentive. The reality is that the worst drivers are also often the most deluded about their own abilities, and the least likely to take responsibility. It would be great if you could somehow raise the skill level of drivers in general and guide inexperienced drivers safely through the dangers that present themselves on the roads, but there is no evidence that it would be an effective prescription for road safety in the absence of other measures including speed enforcement.