In the fast lane to nowhere | Damian Carrington

Tory plan to increase speed limit to 80mph will spark UK’s spluttering economic engine in most hideous ways

What a way to boost the economy: more fuel, fumes and funerals. Revving up the motorway speed limit from 70 to 80mph, as the transport secretary Phillip Hammond will propose at the Conservative party conference this weekend, can only spark the nation’s sputtering economic engine in the most hideous ways.

More people will die and be injured in crashes: more work for doctors, nurses and ambulances. More cars will be written off or damaged: good news for motor manufacturers and mechanics. And the biggest, most profitable companies in the nation – BP and Shell – will have yet more money poured into their coffers as drivers pump more petrol into their tanks. The fact that emissions of climate-warming carbon dioxide will leap too seems, astonishingly, a secondary concern in the short term.

So how can such a transparently idiotic policy be getting the green light? First, the Tories have bought off their coalition partners with a promise to include an expansion of 20mph zones in urban areas. Very sensible idea, very Lib Dem. But high-speed accidents cause far more damage than low-speed ones and, while a rise in motorway speeds could happen overnight, it would take time to seed 20mph zones through the urban jungle.

Second, relaxing restrictions on driving passes a core Conservative test: “cutting red tape”. Telling supporters that the nanny state in the back seat will have to pipe down will have horns tooting in appreciation from Cornwall to Cumberland.

And third, boosting pollution doesn’t matter if you are sceptical on global warming. Despite the prime minister’s promise to lead the greenest government, his key departments have repeatedly put road blocks on the route to green economic growth. Officials say the 80mph speed limit could be enforced, unlike the current 70mph. How? Putting more police in cars? Police numbers are falling. Installing yet more speed cameras? If so, they will have to be far smarter and all-seeing than the current ones, whose margin of error would see 80mph actually meaning almost 90mph.

Cutting journey times will boost business, says Hammond. But as cars’ efficiency plunges as the speedometer needle rises, making that meeting five minutes sooner is likely to hit hard in the wallet. And with petrol at record prices, the luxury of Hammond’s 80mph will, like his railways, be a rich man’s toy.

Energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne opposed Hammond, as did Andrew Lansley, the health secretary. But the free-wheeling free-marketeers of the Tory right outgunned them. Like George Osborne’s penny off fuel duty, this latest pandering to motorists is driving in the opposite direction to the real world. Oil will get more expensive and carbon emissions must fall.

So here’s a solution to douse the passions of the petrolheads. Say yes to an enforced 80mph limit, but only for electric cars.

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