October 23, 2017

Questions to ask

There’s a story in a lot of the British media (via Robin Evans on Twitter) about a plan to raise speed limits near highway roadworks. The speed limit is currently 50mph and the proposal is to raise it to 55mph or 60mph.

Obviously this is an significant issue, with potential safety and travel time consequences.  And Highways England did some research. This is the key part of the description in the stories (presumably from a press release that isn’t yet on the Highways England website)

More than 36 participants took part in each trial and were provided with dashcams and watches incorporating heart-rate monitors and GPS trackers to measure their reactions.

The tests took place at 60mph on the M5 between junction 4a (Bromsgrove) to 6 (Worcester) and at 55mph on the M3 in Surrey between junction 3 and 4a.

According to Highways England 60% of participants recorded a decrease in average heart rate in the 60mph trial zone and 56% presented a decrease on the 55mph trial.

That’s a bit light on detail — how many more than 36; does 60% decrease mean 40% increase; are they saying that the 4 percentage point difference between 55 and 60mph is enough to matter or not enough to matter?

More importantly, though, why is a heart rate decrease in drivers even the question?  I’m not saying it can’t be. Maybe there’s some good reason why it’s reliable information about safety, but if there is the journalists didn’t think to ask about it.

A few stories, such as the one in the Mirror, had a little bit more

“Increasing the speed limit to 60mph where appropriate also enables motorists who feel threatened by the close proximity of HGVs in roadworks to free themselves.”

Even so, is this a finding of the research (why motorists felt safer, or even that they felt safer)? Is it a conclusion from the heart rate monitors? Is it from asking the drivers? Is it just a hypothetical explanation pulled out of the air?

If you’re going to make a scientific-sounding measurement the foundation of this story, you need to explain why it answers some real question. And linking to more information would, as usual, be nice.


Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »


  • avatar
    Steve Curtis

    “More than 36 participants in each trial”

    Oh yes, less than 35 would have made it worthless !
    Here was me thinking all these years that speed limits were set because of cars ability to go round corners and more importantly distance to stop.

    3 months ago