BIG DEBATE: We could soon see 20mph limits everywhere

'Twenty is plenty' speed curb has sparked controoversy

'Twenty is plenty' speed curb has sparked controoversy - Credit: Archant

The first borough-wide 20mph speed limit comes into force in July in the City of London covering the whole Square Mile. Newham has already introduced some 25 smaller zones with another two on the cards near schools, hospitals or residential homes. Now campaigners want to see them spread across the whole borough and even the rest of Greater London. But motoring organisations warn that forcing digital limits on drivers will have an adverse affect and won’t reduce accidents:

Charlie Lloyd

Charlie Lloyd - Credit: Archant

Charlie Lloyd, from the London Cycling Campaign, stresses the need to slow down traffic even more in London’s congested streets:

Malcolm Heymer

Malcolm Heymer - Credit: Alliance of British Drivers

We have been lobbying quite a few years for 20mph as the default speed limit. The new zone in The City from July is a step towards it.

The first choice default everywhere should be 20mph where people live. It doesn’t really slow the traffic or inconvenience motorists.

We don’t expect a 20mph limit in places like the A13 Newham Way. That’s different. It’s a dual-carriageway and there are barriers protecting pedestrians.

That’s not the case in streets where people live and have to share space with traffic.

A 20mph limit doesn’t change journey times, just a little bit longer to get to next junction to get stuck at the lights just the same. Drive round London and most traffic doesn’t even get to 20mph.

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If there’s a clear stretch of road, drivers will speed up and that’s where most serious injuries happen. You can still have accidents below 20pmh and it still hurts—but it doesn’t kill you.

A default 20mph zone is a system where if you make a mistake as everybody does—drivers, cyclists and pedestrians—you can survive.

Motorists should try driving at 20, because it doesn’t take much longer to get where they’re going. If everyone does it, travelling becomes more relaxed and less congested.

London is a huge congested place. The benefits of 20mph in Newham and elsewhere would be less severe injuries and fewer fatalities. Streets become safer to walk in, more inviting, giving people more confidence.

Drivers say it’s safe to go faster on an empty road. It may look empty, but people living there are often afraid to go out.

Streets where people live should be 20mph by default. People driving cars might think it’s a problem, but if they had a 20mph limit outside their own front-door, they would like it.

They should try 20. It doesn’t cause inconvenience, but is more relaxing — and safer for everyone.


But Malcolm Heymer, from the Alliance of British Drivers, argues that 20mph everywhere would give pedestrians a false sense of safety:

A press statement by 20’s Plenty pressure group that 20mph neighbourhood zones are a “win, win, win for local authorities” to make it the national speed limit is a one-sided analysis that must not go unchallenged.

It followed a government report which is unsympathetic to vehicle users and makes much of the claimed benefits of 20mph limits in terms of “public health, safety,” etc — but no mention of the impact on drivers. The report does not understand the correct use or how drivers vary their speed according to changing conditions, which is intuitive and non-numeric.

Reducing the numerical limit produces a far lower impact on speeds, typically around one mile-an-hour where 30mph limits are reduced to 20. A dubious claim from a 2011 Social Attitudes Survey in which 73pc were “in favour” of 20mph had factors that could influence this result, like the wording of questions and understanding of “residential” road. Reducing the limit achieves a much smaller reduction in actual speeds.

Most people are ambivalent about speed limits and give what they think is the “virtuous” answer to an opinion poll. Such findings should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Nothing is achieved by a 20mph limit on roads where speeds are already below that. A false sense of security may be created, which accounts for some casualties rising in many 20mph schemes.

Those pushing for a blanket 20mph limit everywhere are invariably found in that part of the political spectrum that promotes regulation on all aspects of everyday life and abhors the freedom of choice that cars give.

I believe in personal choice and individual responsibility. Well-designed, shared-space schemes shows road safety can be enhanced when controls are removed and individual road users are made to think for themselves—far better than Big Brother over-regulation.