Road safety campaigners say that low speed limits are vital to ensure accident rates drop, while many driving groups say that speed isn't dangerous – it is inappropriate use of speed that is a real problem.
This month the Italian government added fuel to the fire with a controversial decision to increase the country's motorway speed limit from 80mph to 93mph as part of a road safety initiative. It believes motorists who drive faster usually drive more safely because they concentrate harder. Officials argue that only 9% of accidents are caused by speeding.
The change will affect three-lane motorways from January 1 and will be introduced despite the country having one of Europe's worst accident records.
Official figures reveal that Italy is third to France and Germany for annual road deaths, with statistics for 2000, the latest available, showing 6,410 people were killed on the Italian roads.
UK fleets are deeply divided on the issue, with some supporting increased limits while others claim it can only encourage speeding on all roads and offer a devastating blow to road safety campaigners aiming to cut accidents.
However, a clear majority, with influence over thousands of Britain's drivers, would support an increase in UK motorway speed limits from 70mph from 80mph. Many claim that there is already an unofficial 80mph limit on motorways and that changing the law would simply recognise the fact.
However, fleets also insist that if increased limits were accepted, the Government would have to adopt a strict zero tolerance approach to anyone speeding, with enforcement being supported by wider use of speed cameras. Furthermore, the approach sits uneasily beside calls for fleets to do more to meet their duty of care to employees on the road.
A recent survey of 300 fleet operators, undertaken exclusively for Fleet News, discovered 40% had done nothing to warn drivers of the dangers of speeding, using mobile phones while driving, or road rage. The same number said they were not planning to do anything about it in the next year. And 38% of fleet operators surveyed had not investigated their duty of care to drivers, despite repeated warnings they could be held liable for incidents occurring out on the road.
Do you believe that increasing speed limits on Britain's motorways to 80mph would help improve safety?
'Most cars are driven at this speed anyway. Emphasis should continue to be made on keeping a safe distance from the vehicle in front. There should be more signs reminding drivers of this.'
Fleet manager, King UK
'IT has already been proved that the 'safest' roads are motorways, so the speed limit could be increased to 80mph. Conversely, on some roads, particularly in built-up areas and those around schools, the limit should be reduced to 20mph.'
P.M, via email
'I have always been a supporter of using appropriate speed and would support a rise in the limit so long as drivers abide by the principles of appropriate speed on and off a motorway.'
Company secretary, Corgi
'Increasing the limit to 80mph would benefit road safety because it would create a greater differential between commercial vehicles and cars or vans – thus helping to eliminate some of the dangerous 'bunching' we see.'
Manager UK fleet, IBM
'IT would not help at all. There are far too many inexperienced drivers in powerful cars who go on an ego trip every time they are on a motorway. We have all experienced these idiots and it is they who need to be dealt with. The vast majority already ignore the 70mph limit so increasing it to 80mph would only encourage the majority to push the norm to 90mph.'
Fleet Services – South, Telewest
'As the general standard of driving in the UK is appalling I do not believe there is scope for increasing the speed limit unless it is combined with the variable speed limit system used on the M25. One of the problems with increases is the amount of drivers who drive exactly to the speed limit regardless of road or general traffic conditions. These drivers do not consider themselves dangerous as they are not breaking the speed limit. This would obviously increase the speed of this type of driver who will continue to drive far beyond their abilities.'
Ian Smith Group accountant, CpiO
'Accidents will still be caused. An increase in the speed limit would allow drivers to arrive at, or become involved in, the same accidents, but at a higher speed. Also, it may seem flippant, but what use is an 80mph limit on a stationary M25? Drivers will still use phones, read maps, shave and tailgate, all at a higher and more dangerous speeds. In any case, a 100 mile trip at 70mph takes 1hr 26mins, and at 80mph, it will take 1hr 15mins. Is that time saving really worthwhile?'
M.R, via email
'We all know that the UK police seem to be relaxed about 80mph or even 90mph on motorways if correctly driven, and even some politicians have escaped serious punishment for driving at 99mph. I reckon that the police have it about right.'
'AN emphatic yes, but there is a proviso. Drivers are routinely exceeding the 70mph limit on all motorways. The increased limit would certainly improve safety if it was strictly enforced since it would legalise the existing situation, so I would support much more vigorous enforcement beyond that.'
'Accidents are caused by lots of factors – not just speed. Drivers do not concentrate enough on the art of driving. If drivers do not drive as they are taught there will always be accidents. Retaining the 70mph limit will at least limit the severity of an accident.'
C.D, via email
'I do not think it will improve safety. Speed in itself has little impact on safety, it is how someone drives that is all important. You only have to see the tailgaters on motorways or the morons who sit in the outside lane to realise that unfortunately too many of today's drivers have no concept of danger.'
Administration & data protection manager, RNIB
'I would personally support this move, but my professional view would not. There are many who find real difficulty coping with the current limit. There would also be a wider differential between speed- restricted lorries and other vehicles.'
Head of the Compensation & HR Practice, Buck Consultants
'MORE important than a motorway speed limit increase is an effort into getting drivers to observe better lane discipline. This would have a greater effect on reducing accidents and increasing driver awareness.'
P.A, via email
'No. It would be more sensible to watch what happens in Italy first. Raising the speed limit to 80mph here would simply encourage more drivers to do 90mph.'
Tony Hoyle, AMEC Internal Asset Management
'AN increase in the motorway speed limit from 70mph would be a very good thing. I also believe that it will prove safer. To drive at 70 mph on any motorway in the UK is very dangerous – even lorries are up your tail pushing you to go faster. It will also allow motorists to concentrate on their driving rather that keeping half-an-eye open for the police.'
B.D, via email