What happens if your speedo breaks?

Imagine.  You’re driving – or riding – along and suddenly your speedometer breaks.  The dial in front of you suddenly reads zero and the needle’s not moving. You have absolutely no idea what speed you’re travelling at.

One question…

Can you still drive safely?

A 1967 Volvo Amazon speedometer and dashboard, with a straight, clear road ahead.
What happens when your speedo breaks?

The answer’s rather obvious, isn’t it?  There are probably not too many people who would stop immediately and put in a panic call to the AA.  And if they did, I suspect they’d be more concerned with legality than safety.  After all, no-one wants a £100 fine and a brown envelope through the post.

But if you can drive safely and you’re no more likely to crash or hit a pedestrian with no speedo, why do we place such a reliance on speed limits as road safety tools?  And why do we now talk about speed limits with an almost talismanic reverence?

This is from the South Yorkshire Safety Camera partnership:

You can help us to achieve our aim – and reduce the number of deaths and collisions on our roads. All you have to do is keep to the speed limit.

The Tayside Safety Camera partnership says:

Check your speedometer as frequently as you check your mirrors.

On many of Britain’s roads, where speed limits change as rapidly as the numbers on a fruit machine, drivers are constantly matching the number on their speedo to the number on the stick.  The Slower Speeds Initiative reinforces the case for ‘driving by numbers’ and quotes a TRL study that as little as a 1mph reduction in average speeds can reduce crashes by 5%.

But if a duff speedo is no impediment to safe driving, what is it instead?  If you can still drive safely with no speedo, that leaves the whole question of speed limits and their hardline and automated enforcement rather hanging.

Isn’t this a case of making what’s measurable important rather than measuring what’s important?  And, as a consequence, of mistaking compliance for safety?

I’d argue that we’ve taken relative speed and attempted to make it absolute, backed it with threats of prosecution, then reduced and reduced limits until they’ve become risible.  Leslie Hore-Belisha (who set the 30 limit in 1935) intended limits to reflect the behaviour of the majority.  People drove at 30mph – near as dammit – because it felt ‘right’ for urban roads.  We already know that people drive closer to 20mph on narrow residential streets without 20mph limits.  So it’s not those absolute, nicely round numbers making them safe, it’s the speed relative to their surroundings.

Speed limits are not physical absolutes.  By treating them as such, we’ve returned to the situation that led Stanley Buckmaster in 1931 to revoke them altogether and say “…the existing speed limit was so universally disobeyed that its maintenance brought the law into contempt.”  Of course, Lord Buckmaster didn’t have fleets of camera vans and digital camera technology to make sure the law was enforced.

So we’re back where we started – being concerned with legality rather than safety.  You could drive perfectly safely with no speedometer, but you couldn’t drive legally.  That means we’ve simply equated compliance with safety and backed it with ‘big stick’ automated enforcement.

Driving by numbers.  The same principle as “paint by numbers” but a great deal more dangerous.

14 thoughts on “What happens if your speedo breaks?

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  1. Having spent 95% of my working life driving vans, buses, and motorcycles on the roads of London and Britain at large, I concur with the authors comment. One of my bikes had a weak point in that the speedometer drive gears would strip regularly. The cost was a replacement in excess of £50. During the several thousand miles covered without a working speedometer I had no accidents, and I was not stopped for speeding at any time. The greatest loss was the mileometer as it acted as my fuel gauge.

    Many towns are being treated to 20mph limits in the name of safety as we know, yet as personally experienced, many of those towns have roads which even 20mph cannot be attained due to traffic and obstacles.

    Safe driving amounts to being able to stop safely in the distance you can see ahead of you. Of reading the road ahead of you, and anticipating all hazards ahead of you. This requires an intelligent outlook to driving, one which is demeanoured by excessive limitations and control. Those who flout responsibility will do so – limits or no limits. Those who adhere to limits in the belief they are safe – are deluded, and dangerous.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s a beguiling, flattering message – of course your sensible, responsible readers “could drive perfectly safely without a speedometer”, couldn’t they?

    Yet we have one of the worst child pedestrian safety records in Europe, we kill and seriously injure thousands of vulnerable road users every year. The reality is that, speedos or not, as a nation we DON’T drive safely.

    Is also true that, whether 20 limits coerce or encourage, they result in fewer collisions and less harm to those outside cars as well as those inside. Speed limits do reduce crashes.

    I race sailing dinghies, and when I do, I’m required to wear a buoyancy aid. When not racing I’ve sailed without a buoyancy aid many times, yet I’ve not drowned yet. Does that mean buoyancy aids are irrelevant to sailing safety? Of course not.

    Extrapolating our own individual experiences and risk-taking behaviours to population-level interventions completely misses the point – our own driving behaviour is not replicated across the whole population of drivers, and our own anecdotal findings do not reflect real-world outcomes.


    1. Mathematics can also be beguiling. If we look at the child fatalities per 100,000 (1) then the UK comes out at the penultimate worst at 1.21 with Ireland the worst at 1.31 though the report states that the UK compares well with most industrialised countries. Italy, a country renown for hot blooded driving attitudes comes out the best at .49 (1997). Also, to what degree of education in road use are children subjected to in these countries. The latter must be relevant, as so often I have seen in the UK parents as pedestrians exhibiting poor example setting to young people. Just how much relevance does child education have in accident figures? Is it even measurable? Mathematics applied to human nature is fallible.

      (1) http://www.radstats.org.uk/no079/hewson.htm

      But how do these pedestrian fatality figures relate to the number of billion vehicle miles/kilometres covered in each country? If we look at all pedestrian fatalities per 1 Billion vehicle kilometres from Wikipedia’s (2) web pages for 13 of the EU countries with data, we see that the UK comes out 5th at 4.3 per billion vehicle kilometres. The best is Norway at 3.3, and the worst is Bulgaria at 19.1. Are we really so bad at driving?

      (2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_traffic-related_death_rate

      As regards fewer collisions within 20mph limits – please show the evidence. Only conjecture exists on this point.


      How much has concentrating on adhering to a low speed limit affected pedestrian collision rates? And how much antipathy towards drivers in general has been created by lower speed limits and “Kill your speed, not a child” campaigns encouraging and empowering some young people to step in front of moving traffic? Maybe you think this doesn’t happen – watch pupils leaving school. Care needs to be taken by all road users all of the time. ‘20’s plenty’ is Emotive, but misguided.



  3. The simple issue here is that speed is a safety issue to be managed, as Mark says. The problem with the speed zealots is that thanks to their obsession, its now pretty much the only safety issue that actually is managed. You could set off around the b-roads near me pissed out of your mind, on bald tyres, tailgating, and chatting on the phone and unless you crashed your chances of being caught are zero. So long as you slowed for the speed cameras, you’d be fine. The scandal about this is that whilst is a factor in RTAs, is by no means the largest cause…that’s “failing to observe”, or bad driving to you and I. So long as this lunacy of making speed an issue of morality and not safety continues, people are free to drive badly in most other ways with no fear of being caught. And that’s killing people as the shocking recent data about deaths on the roads shows. Safer cars than ever, more speed cameras per capita than any nation on earth, deaths and serious injuries climbing.


    1. Unfair to blame “speed zealots” for the collapse in traffic police numbers and the resulting lack of enforcement on bald tyres, drink driving, tailgating, mobile phone use or whatever. I’m not aware of any campaign group lobbying for reductions in traffic policing – they all want more of it.

      What’s really shocking about the latest road crash statistics is that the key cause – the huge reduction in traffic police officers – isn’t getting the coverage it deserves.


  4. Not clear at all how the apparent increase in ksi is suddenly linked to loss of Trafpol as this happened years ago – the effect of speed cameras on Trafpol numbers has been devastating over a number of years:

    Trafpol numbers in areas: 1998/9, 2007/8, % fall:

    North Wales: 236, 90, 61.9%

    Cheshire: 205, 94, 54.1%

    West Mercia: 238, 128, 46.2%

    Surrey: 177, 98, 44.6%

    West Midlands 405, 352, 13.1%

    Staffordshire 208, 34, 83.7%

    But the UK does have the safest roads in the world – comparable with Sweden.


  5. Agreed, I wasn’t very clear, was I? What I was trying to emphasise was that reducing the dangers Jim highlighted were dependent on active policing, not on the activity of “speed zealots”. Perhaps I should have queried what was meant by that phrase, and left it at that. I’m not aware of any campaign groups arguing in favour of reducing traffic police numbers – we can leave the politicians to finesse the ridiculous argument that speed cameras justify slashing traffic police budgets.

    And as for ours being the safest roads in the world – not if you’re a poor child pedestrian, an urban cyclist or a partially-sighted pensioner they’re not.


  6. Indeed, active roads policing is much more useful than a speed camera that doesn’t see the causes of accidents. The UK has the world’s safest roads, period. It’s a fact that 80% plus of pedestrian accidents are the fault of the pedestrian. Urban cyclists who choose to mingle with heavy economically and socially essential machinery, on 2 flimsy wheels, will always come off worst in a collision regardless of fault.


  7. How can our roads be safest in the world, yet our child pedestrian casualty rates are some of the worst in Europe? Should we just ignore statistics for those killed and seriously injured if they are the ones making mistakes, not others?

    Urban cyclists don’t generally choose to mingle with traffic – unlike many places in Europe, we fail to provide them with safe segregated alternatives – they don’t have a choice in the matter.


  8. No one knows why the UK is mid-table for European countries in terms of pedestrian casualties despite having the safest roads overall. Surprisingly, Sweden isn’t the best either. It costs money and space to provide segregated cycling facilities – something we are short of in the UK – money is best concentrated on the essential majority rather a the very small percentage of non-essential cyclists who pay no specific cycling taxes and are therefore a net cost to taxpayers.


    1. Can you offer a link for the “safest roads overall” claim?

      I have no intention of going anywhere NEAR the assertion that cyclists “pay no specific cycling taxes and are therefore a net cost to taxpayers.” Except to say that as a vegetarian I pay no veggie-specific taxes – am I therefore a net cost to taxpayers?

      Back in February 1990, the then minister of Transport Cecil Parkinson said: “There is nothing subsidised about motoring in Britain today.” At the same time his own department reckoned that car use was costing the public purse £15bn, and revenue from motoring was £11.5bn


  9. Thank you for posing this question.
    I only wish I’d thought to ask it when debating with people about speed limits in the past.
    If I put this question to speed limit campaigners they will either dodge it by simply stating they wouldn’t drive (even though it’s clearly hypothetical) or they answer with no. Then you know you’ve got them.

    That said, many councillors will openly admit they’ve voting to prohibit their own driving behaviour. It’s one thing to think you’re behaviour is wrong, it’s another to think your own behaviour should literally be made illegal, that’s weird.
    It’s a sort of self-contempt I don’t really understand.


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