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Is this move the limit for drivers?

17 July 2009

A Government-appointed commission has suggested that speed limiters should be the next piece of technology to be fitted to vehicles to put the brakes on drivers. But, as John Maslen discovers, there are concerns...

Formula One technology could be coming to a company car near you under new proposals handed to Government – however, the device in question is nothing more sophisticated than the speed limiter.

While Formula One is famed for its 320 km/h wheel-to-wheel battles and close finishes, when drivers turn off the track into the pit lane, speed limiters automatically ensure cars are restricted to 80 km/h, despite the world-class standards of the drivers behind the wheel.

So if it is good for Formula One drivers, then it makes sense that a national debate has started about using speed limiters to improve safety standards on the roads by helping motorists obey limits, particularly company car drivers.

Speeders
Research has repeatedly shown that business drivers are more prone to speeding than private drivers. According to a report released last year by one of the world’s largest leasing companies, LeasePlan, company car drivers are more likely to be caught than other road users too, with up to one-in-six receiving points each year compared to one-in-10 motorists as a whole.

There are also warnings that staff will be quick to place blame on their bosses if they feel they have had to speed because of unrealistic business targets and schedules.

With the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act on the statute book and coming into force on April 6 next year, this is a serious issue.

Limiting speed might not be a popular move, but it could make business sense to take action in the current risk management climate.

"Many car drivers may regard this as taking their freedom away and this could further increase the number of company car entitled drivers opting out of company cars and into private vehicles".


The Commission for Integrated Transport is urging fleets to join the debate on speed limiters, including the potential for systems to be promoted with benefit-in-kind tax and insurance discounts. The call came after the Government-appointed Commission put the speed and safety debate in focus this autumn, when it released a detailed report called ‘Transport and Climate Change’ which included a range of proposals for Government to consider.

It is particularly keen to look at the potential benefi ts of so-called Intelligent Speed Adaptation (ISA) systems – the sophisticated name for speed limiters - which are able to change a vehicle’s top speed according to posted limits.

The report said: “The importance in terms of environmental impacts of adhering to the speed limit should form part of any driving training.

Currently, 56% of drivers exceed the motorway speed limit, 19% at speeds over 80 mph. A medium-sized diesel car will emit up to 14% more CO2 per kilometre at 80 mph compared to 70 mph.

“Enforcing speed limits is doing no more than ensuring road users obey the law. In practice it is a contentious political issue.

“We do not underestimate this, but believe a sophisticated approach to enforcement that is more effective at demonstrating the benefits of compliance, including safety, network capacity and environmental benefits, could win wide public acceptance.”

Next year, a more detailed report, produced by the CFIT and the Motorists Forum, a body which seeks to improve understanding between the Government and road users, will look at the potential benefits of speed limiters from an environmental, fuel consumption and safety point of view.

The ‘Speed Limit Adherence and Its Effects on Climate Change and Road Safety’ research project will be completed in summer 2008.

However, despite all the debate, Intelligent Speed Adaptation systems are still in the research phase.

One of the leading lights in developing the technology is Leeds University’s Institute of Transport Studies, which has spent more than seven years on Governmentfunded research into how the systems could be introduced.

The lead researcher, Professor of Transport Safety Oliver Carsten, said: “We believe this kind of technology can contribute to road safety. If all drivers kept to the speed limit, deaths on the road would fall by 37%.” Such a prediction can’t be ignored by safety conscious companies.

Phil Redman, a director of fleet operators’ association ACFO, said he expected a cautious reception from the fleet industry.

Mixed reaction
“I think there will be a mixed reaction from both fleet managers and drivers to speed limiters. It could potentially mean a reduction in severity of accidents, fewer speeding tickets, reduced fuel bills and lower insurance premiums,” he said.

“But there could be some negative aspects as well. Congestion could well increase – how many times have we all sat behind speed limited lorries trying to overtake each other for miles?

“Many car drivers may regard this as taking their freedom away and this could further increase the number of company car entitled drivers opting out of company cars and into private vehicles.”

His concerns were echoed by Steve Johnson, spokesman for risk management company Drive & Survive, who added: “We support the development of safety features in vehicles but are concerned about adaptive speed limiters.

“Speed in itself is not dangerous, providing the driver, the vehicle and the conditions are appropriate for the speed being applied.

“Our favoured approach would be to equip drivers with the information, aptitude and mental acuity for them to make reasoned decisions about their exposure to risk at all times behind the wheel.

“Use technology as an aid but never rely on it. Over reliance on technology can lead to the ‘autopilot’ syndrome kicking in, where drivers think they are impregnable.”

Mr Johnson argues that even if vehicles are throttled back to exactly the speed limit at precisely the point a road sign appears, that doesn’t make them any safer.

“This almost suggests that the limit becomes a target,” he said. “What about when 20 mph in a 30 mph area is too fast?

“The irresponsible driver is likely to claim that the system allowed him to travel at 30 mph so why shouldn’t he?”

He also raised serious concerns about accidents being caused between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ of the speed limiting world.

Mr Johnson said: “What about the thousands of older vehicles on the road that will not be subject to the system? The bodyshops are going to have a field day repairing all the rear-end shunts due to sudden and unexpected slowing of the vehicle in front.”

So for now, while the debate about technology can continue, simple measures remain the best way to control speed, argues Mr Johnson.

He added: “Surely a cheaper and more effective solution would be a large, prominent digital speed read out on the dashboard, as championed by the Citroen C4 and some sat-nav systems. That, together with greater driver education and awareness, has to be a more practical, less controversial, cheaper method of getting drivers to treat speed with respect and good judgement.”

Improve
For fleets which feel they meet this standard and want to improve safety, there are already basic speed limiting systems that can be fitted to cars and light commercial vehicles immediately, similar to ones that are now standard on vans with a gross vehicle weight of more than 3.5 tonnes and lorries.

Alternatively, fleets can make use of a form of speed limiter that is increasingly fi tted to vehicles – cruise control.

Although it still relies on drivers to set their speed, cruise control can avoid motorists accidentally driving too fast.

Modern adaptive cruise control systems go one step further by monitoring the road ahead and maintaining a safe distance from the vehicle in front, even braking and accelerating where necessary, up to the limits set by the driver.

But recent developments have reflected the safety concerns of Mr Johnson, namely that over-reliance on technology could increase accidents. In Belgium, the road authorities have introduced a new road sign banning the use of cruise control on congested motorways.

The easily identifiable signs have appeared on motorways leading to Antwerp and the Ghent-Brussels highway during roadworks. If caught, drivers face a €50 on-the-spot fine.

The authorities reacted following a spate of rear-end collisions in heavy traffic. Investigators linked these accidents to the use of cruise control.

Case Study

Speed limiters may be controversial, but their benefits are worth the effort when it comes to health and safety, according to one of Britain’s biggest fleet operators...

British Gas, whose parent company Centrica, is one of the first ‘Business Champions’ under the Government’s ‘Driving for Better Business’ programme, has led the way with the introduction of speed limiters in a bid to protect drivers and the environment.

In 2006, British Gas demanded that manufacturers fit speed limiters to its fleet of more than 10,000 vans in a bid to ensure its drivers remain safe on the road.

By 2010, the company says all of its vehicles will be fitted with devices that limit their speed to 70 mph.

Initial estimates suggested that in addition to boosting safety levels, the annual fuel bill could plummet.

Jon York (pictured), fleet operations manager for British Gas, is still committed to the project despite a challenging launch.

“We have a lot of young drivers and this is also a message to them saying we will not tolerate unsafe driving,” he said. “We are totally serious about safety.”

Since the launch of the project, speed limiters have been fi tted to nearly half of the fleet, with a further 2,000 coming over the next year.

Mr York, recently named European safety risk manager of the year by Fleet Radio and SmartDrive Systems, said: “It has had a big impact on the business. We are high profile and part of this change is about the safety of our drivers and the public.

“For that reason, I would also wholeheartedly support the innovation suggested by the Commission for Integrated Transport of introducing the technology in company cars.”

Speed limiters have been part of an overall safety strategy at British Gas which is already well on its way to providing massive dividends. Crashes are down 8%, saving the company nearly £1 million, but the reduced risk and damage to reputation from avoiding incidents is priceless.

Mr York said: “Out on the roads, you see British Gas vans driving within the limit, but it has taken time to get there.

“Drivers used to have a very strong resentment to the systems and there are still one or two like that, but the majority accept it now. Other companies are looking at our achievement.

“The important thing was making sure engineers did not feel alienated, so we needed commitment from the top to delivering a similar safety message to the whole business.

“I make sure I keep to the limits on roads in my car, because it is only fair that all drivers make the effort if the van fleet has to.”

A bit of sympathy helps too, so when drivers complained of tailgating from faster, unlimited vehicles, British Gas fitted stickers to warn other drivers its vans were sticking to 70 mph on motorways.

Despite the challenges the fleet has faced, Mr York believes the decision to fit speed limiters was inevitable in the current health and safety environment.

He said: “The company is showing clearly that it is not putting pressure on its engineers. I expect in future that van drivers throughout the country will come to accept that vehicles will come with speed limiters, especially with them already being fitted to vehicles over 3.5 tonnes.

“With the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act being passed, you have to make sure you are covering yourself and the legislation.

“For one thing, it means that I can sleep at night because I have done what I can to reduce the chance of one of our drivers being involved in

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