Unlocking the great 20mph debate

09.35 | 21 September 2023 | | 7 comments

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.



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    The thinking in Welsh Government for Default 20 was already present in 2015, if not earlier. I recall the discussions we had at their active travel meetings back then when several of us urged the introduction of a more nuanced measure rather than a sledge hammer.

    The current Wales Default 20 is not a cross party measure as any of the recent Senedd debates on the subject will confirm the total rejection by the largest opposition party.
    But the democratic majority has pressed ahead with Default 20 and as I have said on previous occasions, it will be interesting to see what come of it over the next few months.

    Pat, Wales
    Agree (1) | Disagree (9)

    It wasn’t a rule “created in Stockholm” Pat, and you know that. The Stockholm Declaration was the result of developing what is global best practice.

    The call for a default 20mph limit in Wales was initiated in 2018 as a cross-party call well before the 3 Global Road Safety Minister’s conference in 2020 at which the declaration was published. It was in 2018 that the UK Government decided that national speed limits were best decided by the nations in UK rather than the UK Government.

    And note that speed limits on individual roads are the responsibility of local Highway Authorities and its useful to further note that both Cardiff City Council (Labour) and City of Westminster Council (Conservative) have adopted 20mph for most city roads.

    If you want to talk “Welsh democracy and setting speed limits” we have outlined it in one of our FAQs at https://www.20splenty.org/w_faq04

    Rod King, Lymm
    Agree (11) | Disagree (0)

    Democracy can produce different results dependant on which political party holds the power.
    We see differences in ideological views between Westminster and Cardiff, but the rules that govern the UK nations are not made in Stockholm.

    Pat, Wales
    Agree (0) | Disagree (10)

    Perhaps Pat Bates needs to take another look at the 20mph exceptions guidance.

    1. It is guidance, and although only guidance, at its core is the Stockholm Declaration that :-

    “Focus on speed management, including the strengthening of law enforcement to prevent speeding and mandate a maximum road travel speed of 30km/h in areas where vulnerable road users and vehicles mix in a frequent and planned manner, except where strong evidence exists that higher speeds are safe, noting that efforts to reduce speed in general will have a beneficial impact on air quality and climate change as well as being vital to reduce road traffic deaths and injuries.”

    2.There is scope for exceptions where “strong evidence exists that higher speeds are safe”. This is also referenced in the detail of the guidance on “Question B” that “a 20mph speed limit will be appropriate unless the robust and evidenced application of local factors indicates otherwise.” Once again “evidenced application” allows an exception.

    3. In Para 2.2.11 the guidance explicitly states “Where their decision deviates from this guidance highway authorities should have a clear and reasoned case.” So the guidance actually allows for a decision to deviate from the guidance with a “clear and reasoned case”.

    I fail to see how the guidance is “over-bearingly stringent” at Pat claims. Note that the guidance was developed from the 20mph Task Force and Strategy Group which had a wide range of stakeholders, NGOs, emergency services, local authority representatives, public health representatives and road safety representatives. His claim that “We know most of the organisations and individuals responsible for that.” is just a smear against a wide range of officers and individuals doing their jobs. Those people, including the Local Authority Highways officers were being “conscientious, diligent and politically impartial” to assist in developing the guidance.

    Regarding Torfaen, perhaps Pat could enlighten us on what evidence he gathered regarding the roads that he thought should have a limit 50% higher than the national limit and why it seems that it was deemed insufficient to make those exceptions.

    MR ROD KING, Cheshire
    Agree (14) | Disagree (5)

    The ABD refers to “…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” (jumping???). So, in these scenarios, if the driver is travelling at below 20mph, he/she willhave the time and space to see and react to such actions and prevent an accident. Well done to the ABD for alerting us to this.

    Hugh Jones, Cheshire
    Agree (26) | Disagree (4)

    I find it bizarre, and worrying, that people working in the field and interested in Road Safety community would say “No” to that question!

    Even if the change in the national limit only achieves a modest 1 or 2mph reduction in average vehicle speeds, that is to be commended because the knock-on effect in casualty reduction will be huge.

    Simon John Taylor
    Agree (23) | Disagree (14)

    The record breaking number of signatures on the petition to scrap the Default 20 is a very visual outpouring of anger against the policy. It shows that certain political parties and ministers who run the government in Wales are out of touch with a large proportion of the public in Wales. It is also a spectacular example of a failed Default 20 Communications programme for national behaviour change.

    All Members in the Welsh parliament agree with bringing in 20mph speed limits near schools, play areas, shops/highstreets etc. but the over-bearingly stringent Default 20 assessment criteria has deliberately produced a result that I would suggest most of the Senedd (Welsh parliament) didn’t expect they voted for. We know most of the organisations and individuals responsible for that.

    The current kick-back may pass, but none of this bodes well for future speed limit compliance of a blanket Default 20mph speed limit in Wales. I agree with the point in the article that “Inappropriate limits destroy respect for all limits”. Welsh Government has failed to take the majority of the people with them on this.

    I’ve not heard of ANY Local Authority Highways officer involved with implementing the Exceptions assessment tool that actually fully supports its conclusion, they are just being conscientious, diligent and politically impartial to complete the assessment – as one should expect from such an officer. But support it? Nah! It is the local government Elected Members (councillors) and national (Wales) politicians who voted this through in its current form that have failed us.

    Time to go back and lighten upon the Exceptions policy and turn some of the new 20s back to 30mph? I very much think so.

    Pat, Wales
    Agree (15) | Disagree (26)

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