The rules about UK speed limits in the Highway Code are clear. A table tells us that on single carriageway roads, in non-built-up areas, the limit is 60mph.
That rule isn’t just there for the benefit of road-users – it is also the guideline which local authorities are supposed to use when setting speed limits in their own areas.
So how come one local authority has been able to ignore the guidelines by planning to reduce the limit on one such road to just 50mph? Could the reason be that the road in question is the A537, better known as the Cat & Fiddle Run, and that it’s one of the best-loved among motorcyclists?
We revealed last week that Cheshire County Council has decided to reduce the limit from 60mph to 50mph on most of the seven-mile run between Macclesfield and Buxton. The new limit will be imposed from August 20. It will be enforced for a trial period of up to 18 months, during which time Cheshire County Council will be in consultation with Derbyshire County Council and the public over whether to introduce the new limit as a permanent measure along the route.
The decision means that anyone who rides at 80mph on the road could face an instant ban for breaking the speed limit by 30mph.
At the time, the council told us the reduction was agreed because 60mph was " too fast for people to cope with the bends on the road " .
But a call to the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR) revealed that this reason is scarcely strong enough grounds. DTLR spokesman Richard Addison confirmed the Highway Code formed a general guide which local authorities are supposed to follow where speed limits are concerned. " It provides the broad outline for setting speed limits, " he said.
That means the council should have referred to the Highway Code, which advises 60mph, when setting the speed limit on the Cat & Fiddle. There’s no mention of setting speed limits according to how hazardous bends in a road are. In fact, it expressly states the speed limit is the " absolute maximum " and that it is the road user’s responsibility to slow down to a more appropriate speed when " the road layout or condition presents hazards, such as bends " .
Addison added: " Ultimately, it’s down to the rider to decide what’s appropriate according to conditions. "
He emphasised that local authorities do have the power to overrule any guidelines and determine for themselves what the speed limits should be on their roads. But the guidance should only be ignored if there are strong grounds for doing so.
One thing which would constitute such grounds is a safety problem.
When we approached the council again to clarify its reasons, David Hughes, chief engineer for the council’s accident investigation and prevention team, said: " The decision was based on problems with the high percentage of motorcycle accidents on that route. "
He said the decision was based on a study conducted between 1995 and 1998. It found the number of serious or fatal bike accidents on the road was more than three times the county average.
It also revealed that motorcyclists were involved in 68.4 per cent of all accidents, despite only representing four per cent of the traffic flow.
These findings may, at first, appear to paint a grim picture of the famous route. But examine the conclusions and it’s not so striking.
The road is one of the most popular in the country for motorcyclists, which means the number of riders using it could well be three times the national average, too.
A higher-than-average number of bikes alone could explain a higher-than-average accident rate. Triple the number of cars and the number of car accidents is likely to increase, too.
But the council wouldn’t know if the number of bikes on the road is higher than average, because the report didn’t take the matter into account. Instead, it busied itself drawing some rather less telling conclusions.
It found, for example, that 91.6 per cent of motorcycle accidents on the road happened in the dry, and that most were in daylight. Kind of obvious for a road that attracts people in good riding conditions.
But for riders who use the route and the groups that represent them, it’s not the report or its validity that is of concern. They recognise there may be a problem created by a minority of irresponsible riders. What worries them more is that the thousands of us who enjoy it responsibly and within the 60mph speed limit could face prosecution for doing the same thing next year.
Worse still, skilled riders who occasionally touch 80mph on the road could face a ban if they’re caught.
BMF spokesman Jeff Stone said the new speed limit will penalise those who ride responsibly without tackling any problems created by the minority.
He said: " People who’ve completely ignored the 60mph limit will ignore the new limit, too. "
MAG’s Phil Neale agreed. He said: " Riders who already ignore the speed limit won’t suddenly stop because it has been reduced. But riders who do currently ride at 60mph will suddenly be criminalised. "
Both Stone and Neale feel that, if there is a problem, it would be better tackled by clamping down on the irresponsible few than by penalising everyone with a new speed limit.
The Highway Code says…
For cars and motorcycles (including vans up to two tonnes), in a built up area the speed limit is 30mph. On single carriageways the limit is 60mph. On dual carriageways and motorways, the limit is 70mph.
Have your say…
As part of its consultation period on the Cat & Fiddle’s new speed limit, Cheshire County Council is also inviting members of the public to air their views. That means you have a chance to let the local authority know what you think about the planned 50 mph limit before the council decides to make it permanent.
In a notice posted in local newspapers and at the roadside on the Cat & Fiddle run, the council says it will " introduce a 50mph speed limit order on the A537 from the point of termination of the existing 30mph speed limit, which is 115 metres north east of its junction with Buxton Old Road to the Cheshire/Derbyshire Boundary.
The notice which the council is obliged by law to publish continues: " A copy of the Order, map and statement of reason may be inspected during the normal opening hours at the Information Centre, Town Hall, Macclesfield, and the Public Library, Jordangate, Macclesfield.
" Any representations/comments of support or objection in respect of the Order should be made in writing to the undersigned by August 24 2001. " It is signed J B Hillaby, Principal Administrative Office, Town Hall, Macclesfield, Cheshire SK10 1DS. That’s who you need to write to.