Opinion: Slower traffic saves lives

The sad fact is that the UK has the highest proportion of pedestrian road deaths of any European country – followed closely by Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Greece. An even sadder statistic is that the most common cause of death among 5-14 year olds (more boys than girls) is being a pedestrian hit by a motor vehicle.

All the evidence suggests that moving from a 30mph to 20mph limit on residential roads will reduce the death toll. A recent PACTS (Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety) report found that child casualties fell by 67% where 20mph schemes were introduced.

So, I was delighted that we passed a supportive motion at conference, making us the first party to have a national Twenty is Plenty policy in place. My only reservation about the motion was that it spoke of a time period of 10 years – an unnecessarily long length of time in my view. However, I have little doubt that as the ball gets rolling and politicians realise the popularity of the measure (the British Attitudes Survey reports 70% support for 20mph schemes) they will not drag their feet.

Already, more than 8m people live in Authorities that have brought in 20mph limits – in areas as diverse as Southwark, Bristol, Newcastle, Sheffield, Lancashire, Oxfordshire, Cambridge and Liverpool. Surely, we are on our way to a critical mass beyond which it would be useless to resist further?

In Merton we are working with local groups to persuade the council to embrace borough wide 20mph limits in residential roads where sensible without the use of traffic calming measures. This is an important qualification, as it is the difference between the policy being affordable or not. For example, in areas where traffic calming is used £100,000 would buy I mile, however if instead of traffic calming, we use signage and education that same £100,000 would cover 50 miles.

The interesting fact to note is that covering a larger area appears to have a transformational effect on people’s behaviour, leading to a much bigger drop in average speeds – in fact total average speed drops by 7 times more than in the 1 mile zone.

So, I’d like to see us move away from piecemeal implementation and recognise the benefits of wide area implementation – why not campaign for it right across London?

European legislation is already in place – in its 2011-2020 Road Safety Report, the EU Committee for Transport and Tourism’s call for a 30kph speed limit in all residential roads has been fully adopted by the EU Parliament.

The 30mph limit was brought in in 1934, 78 years ago, when there were less than 2 million cars on the road. Today we have more than 33 million – the time has come to recognise this reality and update our approach to urban and village motoring by adopting 20mph as best practice. Not only will we save countless lives, but we will also benefit from cleaner air, less congestion, less noise and a general improvement in our quality of life.

* Shas Sheehan is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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  • Matt Hemsley 2nd Nov '12 - 2:39pm

    The benefits of having 20mph limits are significant. There is the obvious road safety angle, which you mention – but there’s also a public health benefit, as safer streets are likely to see more people walking and cycling.

    You’re also right about the size of the implementation area having an effect on take up. In Bath, we are implementing 20mph in a very small areas, and in a very piecemeal way, which I worry will lead to it being ignored by many drivers.

    However, this brings me back to conference, where it was disappointing that the amendment was passed. We should have been bold enough to say every child deserves a safe street to live in, every local community deserves a high street where people not traffic comes first. But instead we passed an amendment saying that slower speeds are a nice idea, but we aren’t actually prepared to make it happen. I’m fully expecting the next conference to have a motion abolishing national speed limits, as they’ve obviously served us badly so far…

  • jenny barnes 2nd Nov '12 - 3:01pm

    Local politicians round our way (localism ??) might very well realise it’s popular and saves lives – but as they believe motorists should have priority on roads, they won’t support 20mph limits.

  • jenny barnes 2nd Nov '12 - 3:03pm

    PS please don’t suggest I try to get elected. It’s 100% Tory round here in darkest Surrey, and since the coalition Labour voters don’t consider LDs to be any better than Tories.

  • No problem at all with 20mph zones where they are welcomed and there is a genuine safety risk where speed is a factor. But by the logic of the article, would it not be safer to ban the motor car instead? All the evidence suggests that moving from a 20mph to 0mph limit on residential roads will also reduce the death toll.

  • 0 mph speed limits would save lives it doesn’t mean that they are the right thing to do.

    What is wrong with localism? Allow your local council to set these as required?

    20mph speed limits will have a dimishing marginal utility, as they will first be put in place around areas where children are likley to be (schools, parks etc) so the lives saved will be more significant than if you were to impose them on a main road in to a town (which also have houses on).

    The bigest improvement would be enforcing the speed limit that applies at the moment. I live not far from a park and very few drivers travel at 30 on my road.

  • Shas Sheehan 2nd Nov '12 - 6:39pm

    Hi Matt
    Whilst I agree that the amendment weakened the motion, it does still place us in a good position to argue that we are the first party to nail our colours to the mast of road safety – on the side of the pedestrian.
    At the end of the day, what we are after is a culture change in the way we view road space – that it belongs to all of us, not only the car.Our urban environment will be civilised with quieter streets with less pollution and far greater safety for vulnerable road users.
    You’re right – walking and cycling goes up by about 20% in areas with 20mph limits.

  • Stuart Mitchell 2nd Nov '12 - 7:19pm

    Psi: “0 mph speed limits would save lives it doesn’t mean that they are the right thing to do.”

    A silly comment. A 0mph limit would stop people travelling by car, whereas a 20mph limit clearly won’t. The proposal attempts to strike a balance, unlike your parody of it.

    Jedi and Psi: There are nearly 11 million children aged under 15 in the UK. Strange as this may seem, they are not found solely outside schools. How do you think they travel from their homes to the school gates – by TARDIS? If children deserve to be protected outside their school, then they deserve to be protected elsewhere along their route.

    Excellent article Shas. Road safety deserves a much more prominent place on the political agenda and I congratulate you on your efforts. As a nation, we throw up our hands in horror if one child goes missing or is even locked up in a reasonably cosy immigration centre, yet shrug ourshoulders and do nothing about the 60 children killed on the roads per year. It’s something that should shame us.

  • Lorna Dupre 3rd Nov '12 - 4:08pm

    Why 20? Why not 15? Or 12? Or 10? Or 5? Or as fast as a car can go with a man walking in front waving a red flag? Clearly the slower cars go, the fewer pedestrian fatalities there will be, but what I don’t understand is what attempt has been made to balance that with other factors.

  • Graham Martin-Royle 3rd Nov '12 - 6:21pm

    A waste of time. Most motorists don’t bother with the 30MPH limit, what makes anyone think they’ll take any notice of a lower limit?

  • Graham Martin-Royle, I don’t know where you live but MOST motorists do obey speed limits, there are a minority who who don’t.

  • @ Stuart Mitchell

    Well Stuart it was illustrating a point and if you don’t accept my point then perhaps you should try and address the same point being made by Laura Dupre? Why 20? You can always say another reduction in speed will reduce deaths however you need to have a reason for choosing a particular speed not just “it is less”

    I am aware that children are not just found outside schools, however outside a school there is a lot of noise confusion and distraction for children so there is an increased risk of children not looking properly or drivers struggling to process all the possible threats at once. This is why speed limits outside schools need to be lower than other roads.

    The example the statistics above are misleading to initially introduce 20 mph speed limits will place them in areas where there is high risk and this will have an impact of safety and as a result will command public support. However trying to extrapolate that to other areas is naive or deceitful. Putting a 20 MPH speed limit on a dual carriageway in a town will not have the same effect as the road outside a school. There will be varying differences between the school roads and other residential roads.

    The road I live on would be fine if people actually respected the 30 mph speed limit, a 20 mph is not necessary in the slightest, however some enforcement of the 30 limit would be useful. These decisions should be taken at a local level not imposed from above, hence I find the sighting of a European report bizarre, this should be a very local issue there is no need for an EU committee to have an opinion on this.

  • @g

    Graham may have been exagerating a bit but there are a lot of drivers who do not respect the speed limit in 30 areas.

  • Old Codger Chris 4th Nov '12 - 12:59pm

    20 mph limits in certain areas would be good, including but not limited to, roads directly outside schools. In New South Wales (I don’t know about Australia generally) lower limits apply outside schools on school-days during the school arrival and departure periods.

    Incidentally the other big concern is the death toll among young drivers. New South Wales imposes restrictions on young drivers similar to those which have been suggested here.

  • Psi, I know, it’s a problem And one that could be solved by mandatory 20mph limits inside city boundaries. I’m a keen cyclist and I’ve found that the best way to cycle safely is to slow the traffic down to tolerable speeds by preventing overtaking. This would not be necessary if the limit were 20mph.

  • @ Anna Semlyen

    If the people of Chichester want them then they should be implemented there, but this should be alocal issue not a national dictat.

    Equally they will be popular when they make sense for a local town, blanket imposition regardless of the circumstances would result in 20 mph loosing support if they were seen to be put in place where they were not seen to be sensible.

  • I fancy I’m in the minority on my views. Any effort to bring down average speed in residential areas is good, but I feel that imposing a 20mph limit is not the way to do it. I wrote a blog post on this a few months ago:


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