If this week has taught us anything, it is that the subject of 20mph speed limits remains as divisive as ever.
The topic has once again hit the headlines, following Wales’ decision to reduce its default speed limit from 30mph to 20mph.
The Road Safety News team has been asking whether the rest of Great Britain should follow Wales’ example, canvassing the views of stakeholders and readers alike.
It is fair to say that opinion on the matter is split.
Let’s rewind for a minute. When it comes to 20mph speed limits, it is all too easy to divide people into two camps: supporters and critics.
The reality, for me, is not that simple.
At their core, the vast majority support 20mph speed limits. I don’t think you’d find many out there who disagree that 20mph limits are appropriate in certain locations, such as outside schools and on high streets.
Likewise, I don’t think many people would disagree with the evidence which shows 20mph speed limits slow drivers down. The latest example of which comes from Edinburgh Napier University, who looked at the rollout of 20mph speed limits across the Scottish Borders.
Those who do probably believe 20mph – and similar policies such as 15-minute cities – are ‘anti-motorist’ and are part of some elaborate plan to restrict travel and exercise control over our movement.
Apologies, rant over.
I think the real debate is over how to make 20mph limits as effective as possible.
There are of course those, such as the Welsh Government, who favour the widespread approach.
Under their move to a default 20mph limit, most roads which had a 30mph speed limit switched to 20mph.
According to the BBC, about 3% of 30mph roads did not see their speed limit reduced.
People in this camp will point to evidence from Spain, where the speed limit on the majority of roads was changed to 30km/h in 2019.
Since then, Spain has reported 20% fewer urban road deaths, with fatalities reduced by 34% for cyclists and 24% for pedestrians.
Interestingly, when asked whether the rest of Great Britain should move to a default 20mph speed limit, 44% of the 329 respondents to our reader survey backed the move.
Most cited safety as their reason, particularly improving outcomes for vulnerable road users.
One comment summarised this perfectly: “It reduces deaths and accidents on our roads… and improves the quality of life in our communities”.
“This has the potential to dramatically reduce harm on our roads”
There is also stakeholder support for the change too, including from PACTS.
PACTS points to a study it carried out, funded by The Road Safety Trust, which it says “shows the benefits of this approach”.
Jamie Hassall, executive director of PACTS, said: “Introducing 20mph limits across the whole of Great Britain would help reduce the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists that are killed each year on our roads and send a clear and consistent message to motorists about the need to slow down.
“Having a national approach will make it easier for motorists to know where and why the new limits apply.”
Support also comes from RoSPA and Brake.
Rebecca Guy, RoSPA’s road safety manager for England, said: “It is anticipated that by introducing this change, we will see a vast improvement to the welfare of many neighbourhoods throughout Wales.
“We ask that those who are uncertain about the change take into consideration that it will make most local journeys around a minute longer on average, and this has the potential to dramatically reduce harm on our roads.”
Lucy Straker, Campaigns manager at Brake said: “As a charity, we want to see zero road deaths and zero crashes. Lowering speed limits, particularly in places where people walk, cycle, and play, will help us achieve this.
“Implementing 20mph limits in urban areas across the UK is a feasible thing. It involves local governments taking note of the positive change that has happened in Wales and London.
“We’d like to see local governments adopting the 20mph urban limits and viewing it as a positive change to make their areas safer.”
However, I’ll give the final words in this section to Rod King MBE, founder and campaign director of 20’s Plenty. There is truly no-one who advocates harder for 20mph speed limits.
He said: “It is illogical for governments to continue to retain a national urban default limit of 30mph and at the same time encourage highway authorities to set 20mph on most urban/village roads because the national limit is considered inappropriate.
“It makes sense to make 20mph the default national limit and then allow local highway authorities to set exceptions which would remain at 30mph. This would be more consistent, present a simple and clear message, and only require repeater signs on the exceptions to the default 20mph limit.”
The road safety benefits of blanket 20mph areas “not yet firmly established”
Those proficient in mathematics will have noticed that, while pretty even, there was a slightly higher percentage of respondents (50%) to our survey who did not back default 20mph limits for the rest of Great Britain (6% were not sure).
Among this cohort, there were a variety of concerns cited, ranging from enforceability, congestion, extended journey times and lack of public support.
On the latter of those points, it would be irresponsible not to bring up an online petition opposing the move in Wales, which has received more than 339,000 signatures.
For context, it has become the most signed petition in the history of the Welsh Parliament.
I also want to relay one comment from our survey, which says: “Appropriate limits create respect. Inappropriate limits destroy respect for all limits.
“Limits should reflect the road conditions. Blanket limits slapped on wide, straight roads with good sight lines because they are in a ‘built up area’ make no sense.”
There are also stakeholders who share this view, including IAM RoadSmart, as previously reported.
The charity has described the evidence as “not yet firmly established”, questioning whether it would be better to have 20mph limits on specific streets.
Nicholas Lyes, director of policy and standards at IAM RoadSmart, said: “Changing to a default 20mph speed limit in built up areas in Wales will provoke plenty of emotion, yet the road safety benefits of blanket 20mph areas are not yet firmly established.
“We believe it would be better to have 20mph limits on specific streets where there are schools, hospitals and where risks to vulnerable road users are at their highest, along with traffic calming measures and effective enforcement.
“If this were the case, we suspect compliance would be far better than simply sticking up 20mph signs and hoping for the best.”
The Alliance of British Drivers (ABD) also opposes the move.
It says the measure will not deliver significant casualty reductions because vulnerable road users are “being given the entirely inappropriate, incorrect impression that the primary responsibility for their safety lies with someone other than themselves”.
The ABD adds that it “ignores the extremely pertinent fact that the vast majority of pedestrian accidents are the result of incautious pedestrian actions such as stepping, walking, running, or jumping into the path of oncoming vehicles without due care and attention”.
How likely is it that the rest of Great Britain follows suit?
In short, I wouldn’t expect 20mph to become the default speed limit across Great Britain any time soon.
It is reported that the UK Government opposes the move, as does roads minister Richard Holden.
North of the border in Scotland, there is perhaps more potential.
The ‘Scottish Government and Scottish Green Party Shared Policy Programme’, published in September 2021, includes the commitment that all appropriate roads in built up areas will have a speed limit of 20mph by 2025.