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50mph motorway speed limit proposed by health watchdog

A health watchdog wants the government to rush ahead with a motorway speed limit as low as 50mph in a bid to cut air pollution levels.

NICE ─ short for the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence ─ said it wants local councils to accept its proposals, which would see drivers on some stretches of road sticking to a 50mph limit to help encourage a more eco-friendly constant speed.

It also suggested the removal of speed bumps (hooray), 20mph zones across built-up areas (partial hooray), 'no-idling' zones outside of school (definite hooray) and more speed cameras (you can't win them all).

Though a bitter pill to swallow for motorists, air pollution is said to cause up to 25,000 deaths a year in the form of heart attacks, lung disease, strokes and asthma, NICE said. The World Health Organisation believes it causes 5.5-million premature deaths worldwide.

"If the traffic is such that you are stopping and starting, decelerating and accelerating, then that increases emissions, pollution and fuel consumption," NICE centre of guidelines director Professor Mark Baker said.

He added: "In those circumstances, slowing everything down to 60mph or 50mph is the best approach ─ but not all the time. That's why variable speed limits are far more sensible than blanket 50mph or 60mph limits.

"Variable speed limits are justified on roads which are busy enough for traffic to have to brake for no other reason than that the road is blocked."

Motoring journalist and ex-Top Gear presenter Quentin Wilson argued lowering the motorway limit would be counter-productive. "50mph on motorways will cause delays, accidents, congestion and more pollution. We need zero emission cars not daft ideas like this!" he tweeted.

The proposals, currently in the consultation stage, may be adopted by the government, but are not legally binding.

A government spokesperson said: "This draft guidance doesn't represent government policy, but we are committed to improving the UK's air quality and cutting harmful emissions."

Besides proven to be carcinogenic in the case of diesel fumes, a recent study found NO2 levels ─ one of the nastier particulates emitted by the combustion engine ─ had an impact on accident figures and that a reduction could decrease the number of collisions in Britain. It could even improve your skin.

The proposal: Pros and cons

Removing speed bumps is an obvious move as cars slowing down and speeding up uses up more fuel than cruising and we all know most people rush up to them, hit the brakes, then speed off to regain the lost speed.

Meanwhile a no-idling zone would subject children to lower levels of emissions while being dropped off at school and it could even encourage some parents to consider a healthier school run (where possible, of course).

As for more speed cameras, that obviously sounds bad for responsible drivers who drive to their surroundings, but then the lack of speed bumps may result in more accidents with pedestrians so a touch of traffic calming seems fair if speed bumps are removed.

So what about the motorway speed limit of 50mph? There is no denying a lower, more constant limit would help improve fuel economy and reduce emissions, making motoring cheaper for some and better on the old lungs.

But the effect on slowing down the nation to 50mph from a business perspective (not including lorry drivers, as they already have a lower limit than 70mph) could be hugely costly and prolonged periods of driving that slowly can only induce the sort of boredom that leads to tiredness and then a crash.

To be fair, we already have variable speed limits on motorways and, because of constant roadworks, some stretches are already limited to 50mph. Any movement would be preferable for those who frequently spend their life stuck in mile-long tailbacks.

Would it not, however, make more sense to encourage motorists to consider a hybrid or electric car, by way of a larger government incentive bonus at the point of sale? If eco cars were cheaper, there is little doubt people would embrace them – if only to reduce their fuel bills.

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