The Utter Absurdity of Speed Limits on Motorway Gantry Signs

By Tom Pritchard on at

You know what really grinds my gears? Speed limits on the gantry signs that populate British motorways. Along with the resulting queues of traffic, naturally.

First of all I'd like to clarify what I mean, so to avoid confusion.

I don't mean these:

...I mean these bastards:

The first picture is one of a managed motorway near Birmingham, the other of a standard motorway gantry sign. There is a very big difference between the speed limits on them -- one of them is legally enforceable, the other is not. Can you guess which?

If you said the top, you would be correct and for one very good reason. Note the large red ring surrounding the speed limit, a ring which the latter sign lacks. The ring is the most important part. The presence of the red ring means the speed limit is legally enforceable; break it and chances are you'll find yourself in possession of a speeding ticket six weeks later. The ring-less speed limit? Not so much.

Yet for the most part, not many people can see the distinction between the two. I can sort of understand the need for managed motorways, as much as I dislike them for enforcing a speed limit with cameras they aren't too draconian in their implementation. For one thing, the speed limit only drops by about 10 miles per hour, 20 max. So for the most part it's not such a massive shock to suddenly happen upon. Apparently they do a fair bit of good as well -- since its introduction on the M42, the managed motorway system has apparently reduced journey times; levels of pollution fell by a whopping 10 per cent, and accidents fell from an average of five a month to one and a half.

Ordinary gantry signs are a completely different story. Often I've found myself coming up to an enormous queue of standstill traffic at 70+ miles per hour, resulting in me slamming my brakes on. All because the person in the control room decided it would be a good idea to try and make people drop to 40, a speed that you'd be incredibly lucky to actually reach.

The majority of this has happened to me on the M62 between Liverpool and Manchester, in both directions. Often I'll end up in maybe three sets of standstill traffic when it's not rush hour. Get caught in rush hour? As I'm sure everyone who's ever been caught in rush hour on the M62 will tell you, you're screwed.

I've sat in these queues time and time again and as soon as the gantry signs decide to say the speed limit should be 70 again, the traffic will clear up without fail.

Every single fucking time.

If the traffic did actually flow at 40 miles per hour, maybe I could deal with it without hulking out every 15 minutes. The sad thing is, as many people may already know, it doesn't take a huge decrease in speed to leave traffic at a standstill. It didn't take long into my new life as a driver to find that gantry signs suggesting lower speeds will inevitably lead to a traffic standstill.

Let's be honest, people drive haphazardly on the motorway as it is. Drivers have enough to look out for, without having to worry about the flow of traffic suddenly grinding to a halt for no reason other than the control room operator was bored. I can get pretty angry at other drivers if they're doing something stupid, but there's something about having to sit in mile-long queues of traffic that really drives me over the edge (sorry for the pun).

More importantly though, it's actually pretty damn dangerous for this sort of thing to happen so often. The motorway speed limit might be 70 mile per hour, but apparently something like 50 per cent of all road users ignore that and drive somewhere in the region of 80 miles per hour. Even from 70, having to suddenly drop to a standstill is a pile-up waiting to happen.

But the sad thing is, I can't really back this up with statistical evidence. In fact, the only thing I was able to find with any shred of data supporting my rant was a Daily Mail article from 2009. I'll let you be the judge of that though.

If you want to take anything away from this it should be this: Unless there is a red ring around a speed limit, it's worthless. Ignore it if you can and drive at whatever speed you think is safe. Passing this onto other motorists would also be a help, so maybe, just maybe, we can make the motorways that little bit less rage-inducing and safer to drive on.

Image Credit: Motorway Speed Limit from London Evening Standard; Motorway Gantry Sign from

Tom takes great pleasure in complaining about things. When he's not doing that, he can usually be found playing Skyrim or watching a selection of classic Doctor Who

Spiels From “Them Below” is a series of columns written by “them below”; the thousands of readers who comment tirelessly, or tirelessly read, Gizmodo UK. Have you got something to lament? Extol? Ponder? Get in touch at kat.hannaford[at], after reading the details here. Disclaimer: Spiels From “Them Below” doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinions of Gizmodo UK or its editors.

Image Credit: Motorway from Shutterstock