Although speed limits seem to be a constant cause of debate, they are nothing new. Speed limits were first introduced to the UK not long after the arrival of the motor car on our roads, as an insurance policy to keep cars down to the speed of a horse for the safety of other road users. Our speed limits have undergone many changes since, reflecting changes to our vehicles, roads and way of life.
A maximum speed limit for motorways was introduced in the 1960s. Now that most new and used cars can attain triple figure speeds and the motor trade continually produces faster models, is restricting them to 70mph on motorways more important than ever, or would it make more sense to abolish the speed limit and have unrestricted motorways?
In the UK, most speed limits are indicated by a round sign with a red border with a figure showing the limit in miles per hour. This may also be reinforced by road markings. For instance, if you are approaching a 30mph limit from a national speed limit, there will be countdown markers at the side of the road, or traffic calming measures such as chicanes, speed humps or a change in the surface texture to warn of the coming speed change. You need to be travelling within the new limit as soon as your vehicle passes the sign, so give yourself enough time to slow down safely.
Smaller signs, called repeaters, serve as a reminder of the current speed limit. If you cannot see any repeater signs and you are in a built-up area with street lights, you should assume the speed limit is 30mph.
A white circle with a black diagonal stripe indicates the national speed limit. For cars and motorcycles this is 60mph on single carriageways, and 70mph on dual carriageways and motorways.
Many drivers assume any road with multiple lanes is a dual carriageway. In fact, this only applies to roads with a central barrier to separate traffic travelling in opposite directions, not because a road has multiple lanes on each side.
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Many UK country roads would be dangerous to travel along at 60mph, due to sharp corners, poor surface, narrow carriageways and other hazards. So, it is important to never treat the speed limit as a target, just drive according to your road conditions.
Also, remember that different classes of vehicle have different maximum speed limits. The national speed limit on dual carriageways and motorways is lower for vans, HGVs, and vehicles towing a trailer, amongst others.
While some commercial vehicles are fitted with a speed limiter, it can be easy to forget the speed restrictions for other vehicles if you are accustomed to driving a car. Driving over the speed limit in any vehicle is an offence, so check the Highway Code before setting off if you’re unsure.