This week marks the biggest annual campaign to highlight the preventable deaths and injuries on the UK’s roads. BRAKE, the road safety charity, this year have dedicated the 19th – 25th November 2023 to their Road Safety Week. The campaign aims to get “thousands of schools, organisations and communities involved to share important road safety messages, remember people affected by road death and injury, and raise funds to help Brake care for more road victims and campaign for safe roads for everyone.”

This year, the key focus of the campaign has been on speed. Speed is a universal issue which affects all road users. Excess speed is a common cause of injury and deaths on UK’s roads.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will be aware of the desire to lower the speed limits in many built-up areas from the traditional 30mph to a lower 20mph. The Welsh government rolled out 20mph limits in September 2023, triggering a furore among motorists, populist politicians and Daily Mail readers. But, dear reader, believe me when I say, 20mph speed limits are a good thing. Let me tell you why.

Much of the negative press about 20mph; that they will bring town centres to a standstill and that we’ll all suffocate and die of pollution as cars crawl at snails’ pace past our front doors is, at best, misinformation and, at worst, downright lies spouted by those with a political agenda. In this article, I will address the myths and mistruths surrounding the new speed limit and argue that, in fact, it might be a good thing for all of us when it comes to road safety.

Reduce speed

Perhaps the most obvious outcome the 20mph limit seeks to achieve is a reduction in speed. Many motorists see the speed limit as a target, not a limit. This inevitably leads to excess speed being carried through areas where there are schools, town centres, and housing developments. Travelling too fast for the conditions or excessive speed is reported in 11% of all reported accidents and 18% of fatal accidents. Edinburgh Napier University investigated the effect a rollout of 20mph would have. It was found that average speeds of motorists reduced across the board, perhaps an inevitable conclusion, but an important one, nonetheless.

Save Lives

The Welsh Government’s assessment is that 20mph will save 9 lives and prevent 98 serious injuries each year. According to data from The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, at traffic speeds of 30-40mph, the risk of pedestrian death because of a collision with a vehicle is 5.5 times more likely than at speeds between 20-30mph. (A public health study estimated that the 20mph default speed limit could result, every year, in 40% fewer collisions, 6 to 10 lives saved and 1200 to 2000 people avoiding injury.)

Encourage active travel

By now, it is generally accepted that we all must do our bit to reduce our “carbon footprint”. One of the ways the public can do that is to use sustainable forms of transport or active travel. One idea behind the introduction of 20mph is to make the roads a more inviting place for cyclists but also people using other modes of transportation which are not cars.

Those are some of the positives of 20mph, so let’s address the negatives, or the perceived negatives.

Journey times

Some media commentators have said that the increased journey times caused by 20mph will cost the UK economy £4.5 billion. When pushed, there is very little substantive evidence to back this claim. Journey times on roads in urban areas tend to be determined by a whole multitude or factors; junctions and signals, rather than the speed limit. In many cases, lowering the speed limit to 20mph will have little or no impact on journey times. The Welsh Government’s analysis was that average journey time would be around 1 minute longer.

Vehicle efficiency and fuel consumption

An increase in fuel consumption is another claim made by anti-20mphers; they claim driving at 20mph causes cars to “struggle” and use more fuel than at 30mph. Nonsense. Fuel consumption is influenced by the way we drive – not speed alone. Driving at a constant speed is better than stopping and starting and accelerating up to 30mph can take twice as much energy compared to speeding up to 20mph. My car is most efficient cruising along the motorway at 65mph, but you won’t hear me advocating that I should therefore be driving through built-up areas at that speed.

Air pollution

Imperial College London, in their analysis of 20mph limits, found that in areas where 20mph was in place, they were “pollution neutral”, meaning no negative impact of the new limit on pollution levels. Of course, many things contribute to pollution levels. They can include driving style, braking, vehicle condition, acceleration, engine temperature and distance travelled. Lower speed limits will hopefully encourage more people to choose active ways to travel and therefore there will be fewer polluting cars on the roads.

Cost to the economy

As illuded to above, the estimated cost to the UK economy of £4.5 billion over 30 years may not be an accurate reflection of the true cost as it was based on journey time alone. Slightly longer travel time is truly the only potential negative economic impact of 20mph. In any case, flexible working and new communication technologies negate this. Furthermore, it is estimated that the casualty prevention savings, including the reduced impact on NHS and emergency services, could be up to £92m every year.
I hope I have gone some of the way to convincing you that 20mph may not actually be all that bad. The potential to save up to 9 lives per year for, on average, a journey time of 1 minute extra is surely worth it, isn’t it?

These proposals have benefits for all roads users, but especially the most vulnerable road users, such as cyclists and pedestrians. In 2018, 86% of cycling casualties and 95% of pedestrian casualties in Scotland occurred on built-up roads, with a speed limit of 40mph or less. Evidence suggests that accident survival rates are between about three and five times higher when a pedestrian is hit by a car driving at 20mph, compared to 30mph.

In summary, 20mph, in my view, saves lives, encourages active travel, saves the NHS money, protects vulnerable road users, lessens the chance of serious injury if a collision occurs, lessens the chance of motorists suffering serious injury and has no negative impact on pollution levels, journey times, or the economy. Call me crazy, but that sounds like a pretty good proposal to me.

Thomas Mitchell

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