Purchasing power, ecology: why the debate on speed limits is resurfacing

Faced with rising fuel prices, the government could include in its climate bill presented at the start of the school year a reduction in speed from 130 to 110 km/h on the motorway. But the fiasco of the passage to 80km / h on the national network could dissuade him from implementing this measure, the effectiveness of which is debated.

This may be the debate for the start of the 2022 school year: should we lower the speed on the motorways or not? Green MP Sandrine Rousseau recently made this proposal in an interview with the Parisian:

“Driving fast on the highway with big cars is a form of comfort, but given the ecological emergency, it is no longer possible today”, underlined the elected representative of the 9th district of Paris.

Going back to 90km / h, “a double error”

Sandrine Rousseau is also very critical of the many departments (currently 42) to have decided to return to a limitation of 90km / h instead of 80km / h, a limitation which should have become the norm since 2018.

For her, it is quite simply a “double error, both moral and environmental. Moral, because it sends the signal that the slightest restriction is unbearable. We must get out of this idea because it We’re going to have to change our way of life, whatever happens. On the environmental level, going from 90 to 80 km/h leads to a 7% drop in CO2 emissions and any release of CO2 into the atmosphere aggravates the situation.”

Except that this failed reform of 80km / h could precisely dissuade the government of Elisabeth Borne from proposing a passage to 110 or 120km / h instead of 130km / h in its Climate bill presented at the start of the school year.

However, the context remains favorable to such a measure. We are indeed witnessing a certain environmental awareness of the French population, marked by the clearly visible signs of climate change, and the historical echo of the oil crisis. It was in 1973, in the midst of the explosion in fuel prices, that a 100 km/h limit was adopted on the national network in France. A measure motivated above all by an objective of lowering road mortality, at its highest in 1972, but which allowed, with this argument of energy sobriety, to be more accepted by the French.

Time wasted for the planet… and the wallet?

Rebelote in 2022? Not sure if we take the example of the 80km/h reform. Olivier Amrane, president of the departmental council of Ardèche, a department which has just returned to 90km / h, recalled on BFMTV that this measure had been taken as a “unilateral decision descended from Paris in 2018”, with this backpedaling that we now knows since 2019.

In the wake of the yellow vests crisis and numerous destructions of automatic speed cameras, the government had finally let each department set itself a partial or total return to 90km/h or to remain at 80km/h. What in passing has created some confusion since then, with a rule according to the type of road which can vary several times on the same route.

Ultimately, this debate on speed limits (on the national network as well as on motorways) boils down to a trade-off between time spent on the road and environmental impact.

The time saving thus remained largely overestimated by the president of the departmental council of the Ardèche: he indeed evoked 20 minutes of time saving (“10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes in the evening”) on a daily journey of 100 kilometers, while we actually gain less than 9 minutes by going back to 90 km/h over this distance.

Over the same distance of 100 kilometres, going from 130 to 110 km/h causes you to lose an almost equivalent timewith a trip that goes from 46 to 54 minutes.

On the other hand, lowering the speed makes it possible to reduce consumption (the faster you drive, the more you consume) and therefore emissions. A test carried out in a Citroën C4 Diesel by our colleagues from Progress on a journey of 500 kilometers at 130km/h and at 110km/h thus gave a lost time of 42 minutes, but for a reduction in fuel consumption of 25%.

And in an electric car, whose sales have taken off in recent months in France, consumption can be halved by lowering its speed in the same proportions: enough to recover the time lost by driving more slowly, by saving an additional charging stop on this same route.

Lower consumption also means a gain in purchasing power, which is quite interesting when France is currently experiencing record inflation.

“By going from 90 to 80 km/h, over a year in France, we save a million tonnes of CO2. We also save 500 million liters of gasoline. At 2 euros per litre, that’s still a billion euros and I think it’s the purchasing power that people who are most dependent on their car need, for example recently underlined the environmentalist senator for French people living abroad Mélanie Vogel, referring to a measure “both good for purchasing power and the climate”.

Beyond the drop in consumption, an expected effect of a drop in speed would be to make motorways, and therefore the car, less attractive compared to the train for long journeys, or public transport for journeys Daily, as Sandrine Rousseau mentioned on Europe 1 at the end of July.

The French (really) ready to reduce their speed?

With all its arguments, hard to believe that motorists would not be ready to slow down. No surprise therefore to see the recent appearance an Ifop poll mentions that 63% of French people would potentially be in favor of a limit lowered to 110 km/h.

Except that this survey commissioned by the association “Acting for the environment” actually raised the question of reducing speed on the motorway… “specifically with the aim of saving fuel”. A precision which according to the spokesperson of the association of the League of drivers, Alexandra Legendre, “changes everything” to the results obtained, can we read in a column published by Capital at the end of July.

In this text, we can moreover retain three arguments against this lowering of the limits from 130 to 110: the transfer of traffic to the free national network and the so-called secondary roads (whereas the motorway network is five times safer), the resurgence of drowsiness at the wheel (first cause of death on the highway) and a potential raid on the points of the driving license.

A not-so-favorable balance sheet

On these different points, we can also point out that the reduction in road fatalities was the number one objective of the passage to 80km/h (even if we also already mentioned in a secondary way the gain in fuel consumption). But the very positive assessment touted by the Ministry of the Interior appears in reality to be mixed, even “hypocritical and misleading”. as denounced in September 2021 an analysis of the League of Drivers.

And, concerning the positive effects for the planet of a reduction in speed limits, we should also review our expectations… downwards. This is what already emerged in September 2021, in the wake of the generalization of 30km / h in Paris and that the question arose precisely for the motorway network.

According to a 2018 study by the General Commission for Sustainable Development (CGDD), the actual speed on the motorway in France is 113 km/h. By increasing to 110 km/h maximum, the real speed would increase to 108 km/h on average, ie a CO2 gain of 0.9 million tonnes per year, the equivalent of 0.2% of CO2 emissions in France.

The study had also quantified the overall cost of the measure, especially the loss of time linked to this drop in traffic. We then arrived at 65 million hours lost per year, or 900 million euros lost… against 4 million gained thanks to avoided CO2 emissions.

Beyond these battles of figures, it would rather be the unpopularity of such a measure that would block its implementation: in 2020, Emmanuel Macron had himself rejected this proposal from the Citizens’ Climate Convention to generalize the 110km/h on motorways.

And if the current Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, then Minister for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition, said she was “personally favorable”, she had remained cautious, judging “important, on subjects like this, to verify that there is indeed support from the French and those who are directly concerned”.

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