20mph limits/zones came under the microscope at the 2019 National Road Safety Conference – with three speakers in the ‘hot topic’ session debating whether they can help reduce collisions and casualties, and improve road safety.
20mph limits are never far from the media spotlight – with ongoing lobbying by campaigners for 20mph to become the default limit in urban and residential areas.
The current position varies across the UK – with plans to make 20mph the default limit for residential areas in Wales supported by the country’s first minister, Mark Drakeford.
In London, TfL recently confirmed limits on central London roads will be reduced to 20mph from early 2020, after receiving public support for the plans.
By contrast, in Scotland, MSPs voted down a bill which sought to make 20mph the default limit on residential streets in June of this year.
The issue was explored during a passionate ‘hot topic’ session at 2019 National Road Safety Conference, with the three participants offering differing perspectives.
The results of a ‘before and after poll’ at National Conference suggested the debate had helped clarify thinking among delegates – with fewer people unsure about the merits of 20mph, and a swing towards increased support for the lower limit.
‘Opportunities to improve road safety’
The first speaker – Richard Fernandes, a senior consultant at Atkins – was responsible for both the safety and speed analysis in the DfT’s 20mph Speed Limit Evaluation report, published in November 2018.
Richard said the report concluded there is insufficient evidence to suggest the introduction of signed only 20mph limits in residential areas has led to a significant change in collisions and casualties.
He said one of the key conclusions from the report is that road characteristics are very important in terms of speed – adding that 20mph zones (with traffic calming) do lower vehicle speeds.
Richard stressed the importance of compliance – before suggesting the research ‘shows opportunities to improve road safety’.
He finished by posing the question: “How can we design the road environment to encourage lower speeds on 20/30mph roads?”
Default 20mph not ‘the right way to go’
The second participant was Pat Bates, road safety strategy officer at Torfaen Council – who expressed his support for the current position, with policy centred around evidence based decision making, rather than implementing a default 20mph limit on residential roads.
While Pat stressed he is not against 20mph speed limits – having put schemes in place where his team ‘collectively believe they are appropriate’ – he pointed to a ‘reality gap’ between the aspirations of campaigners and the deliverables.
He claimed that an important reason for this is that a ‘very large number of drivers are not yet willing to voluntarily go slower’.
He suggested to achieve compliance, a large-scale change of driver mindset is required, coupled with either a ‘massive level of enforcement’ or ‘much more speed reducing engineering’.
In particular, he asked how the public can be won over when ‘disappointment sets in as vehicle speeds don’t change much after a large scale default 20mph is introduced’.
Pat called on both sides to have their say in rational discussions and ‘work out what can actually be achieved’.
‘A catalyst for changing the way we view streets’
Speaking in favour of default 20mph speed limits was Rod King MBE, founder of the campaign group 20’s Plenty for Us.
With a focus on the single issue of campaigning for 20mph limits for most roads across a complete local authority area, 20’s Plenty now has 420 local campaigns in the UK, Ireland, USA, Canada and Australia.
Rod conceded that 20mph limits are not a ‘silver bullet’, but stressed they can be a catalyst for changing the way we view streets – in turn reducing speeds and casualties.
He said 20mph endorses the rights of walkers, cyclists, the young and elderly, to safely and sustainably co-exist with motor vehicles.
Rod contended that the link between speed and casualties is ‘clear’ – with 20mph advised by WHO, EU, ETSC and iRAP as the correct limit where vehicles mix with people.
He quoted statistics suggesting a reduction in average speed from 26mph to 22mph will reduce network kinetic energy by 40% and average stopping distance from 33m to 27m.
Rod concluded by challenging road safety professionals to view 20mph limits as an ‘opportunity rather than a threat’ – and urged them to use the ‘huge potential to build on the strong community support for 20mph limits’.
A change in thinking?
In a poll taken before and after the debate, delegates were asked to answer the question: “Can 20mph limts/zones help reduce collisions and casualties, and improve road safety?”
Before the session, 40% of respondents said ‘yes’ and 25% ‘no’ – with 35% unsure.
At the conclusion, 50% respondents said ‘yes’ and 30% ‘no’ – while 20% remained unsure.