Academic advocates 20mph limits to reduce health inequalities

12.00 | 20 January 2014 | | 10 comments

A leading social geographer has suggested that introducing 20mph limits “where 30mph limits have usually been in place” is the most effective thing a local authority can do to reduce health inequalities.

Professor Danny Dorling’s paper on 20mph limits is one of nine suggested policies for local authorities published by The British Academy.

The British Academy is an independent national academy of Fellows elected for their eminence in research and publication, and the UK’s expert body that supports and speaks for the humanities and social sciences.

Its report, “If you could do one thing…" Nine local actions to reduce health inequalities”, was published on 16 January.

Each of the nine authors draws on the evidence base for their particular area of expertise to identify one policy intervention that they think local authorities could introduce to improve the health of the local population and reduce health inequalities.

The British Academy says: “With the current structural changes to public health in England, we hope that this report will be a useful source of information on the evidence base for local policymakers and directors of public health.”

Professor Danny Dorling is Halford Mackinder Professor of the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford.  He is a widely published and highly respected expert with a special interest in differential life expectancy between socio-economic groups. 

In his report Professor Dorling suggests that “introducing 20mph zones would save lives, prevent injuries and reduce health inequalities in the process". He describes it as “a low cost measure and a devolved power that can only easily be enacted at the local level”.

Professor Dorling goes on to suggest that “death is much less likely if a pedestrian is hit by a car travelling at 20mph, than at 30mph or more, and cyclists are far safer if travelling with traffic that does not exceed 20mph”.

He also says that “lower traffic speeds bring many other benefits: less congestion; less air pollution and CO2 emissions; stronger communities; more walking and cycling; and reduced obesity”.

Click here to download Professor Dorling’s paper.


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    I live on a totally residential estate. The rules state to get a reduction from the present 30 to 20 mph, there would have to a high incidence of collisions resulting in injury/death & that speed humps would be applied. I call for a national blanket 20 mph speed limit in residential areas. Speed humps should only be applied where adherence is ignored leading to injury/death. To begin with signs at the entrances & 20 mph road markings at regular intervals should suffice. This is a sensible measure with many benefits as described in many reports.

    Michael Hilder, Weymouth
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    Can I pose a question?

    The general argument for and against 20 limits seems to be based entirely around casualty reduction. When the speed limit on the arterial road passing near my estate was reduced from 40 mph to 30 mph, a few years ago, there were many local moans (including in my household). I can’t say I’ve noticed any difference in the number, or severity of crashes, but I can now have a conversation in my back garden (I can even read there, when the weather is right). Does anyone have any information on the amount of noise generated by motor vehicles, at different speeds? If 20 limits are going to bring a quieter environment, I think I might go for the idea!

    Martin – Suffolk
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    If 20’s are good for health, then there should be a lot more funding coming from health so that the limited money available for casualty reduction is not subject to political knee jerks.

    Nadeem, Manchester.
    Agree (1) | Disagree (0)

    I love the bit where he says that there will be better traffic flow because smaller gaps will be needed between vehicles. In the next paragraph he tells us that filtering at junctions will be easier too, but hang on a minute, won’t vehicles be travelling much closer together, therefore making the gap you need to pull into much smaller? Not really joined up thinking, is it?

    David, Suffolk
    Agree (1) | Disagree (0)

    Using psychology to unlock the minds of drivers is a great philosophical debate. However, how successful will this theology prove to be in altering the thought patterns of those that cause the problems in the first place, namely those that speed at any cost, in any statutory speed limit? Spend the money on imposing current speed limits and targeting those that abuse them.

    David Matthews Northamptonshire
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    The decision about what a speed limit needs to be needs to have more in the equation than “the slower you go the less likely you are to hurt someone”. I cycle and drive to work, the decision is made based on how much I have to carry, what the weather is like, etc. I cannot believe that anyone would think that cycling or walking on 20 or 30MPH roads would make any difference whatsoever.

    Dave Taylor, Guildford
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    From experience near where I live, 20 mph zones are imposed in areas where there have been few or no fatalities for many years, therefore his argument “death is much less likely if a pedestrian is hit by a car travelling at 20mph, than at 30mph or more” is irrelevant.

    Bobbio Chiswell Green
    Agree (0) | Disagree (1)

    It’s not clear what agreeing or disagreeing with Dave’s comment means. Agreeing that 20mph will prevent wars? Or agreeing with the implied suggestion that the Professor has lost the plot?

    Eric Bridgstock, Independent Road Safety Research, St Albans
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    20mph will prevent future wars being fought. I’m not joking – Danny Dorling p54, No8!

    Dave Finney, Slough
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    Oh dear, another ‘bad apple’ theorist. His paper is so full of contradictions and opinions dressed up as facts that it makes you worry about the current standards of acadaemic rigour.

    Duncan MacKillop, Stratford on Avon
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

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