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What impact will Wales’ new default speed limit have on accidents and journey times

16 Sep 2023 5 minute read
20mph speed limit.

Charles Musselwhite, Professor of Psychology, Aberystwyth University

Peter Merriman, Professor of Human Geography, Aberystwyth University

The default speed limit in residential areas in Wales will be reduced from 30mph to 20mph from midnight on September 17. It will make Wales the first UK nation to adopt a 20mph default urban speed limit.

The new limit will apply to all “restricted” roads, which are roads in built-up areas with high levels of pedestrians. There are some exemptions and local authorities have been able to apply for certain roads to be kept at 30mph.

This change in the law has huge potential public health benefits, including decreasing the number of injuries and deaths from collisions, and may encourage more people to walk and cycle.

However, there is some opposition to the change, with concerns over journey times, additional costs to businesses in deliveries, uncertainties around its effect on vehicle emissions and the potential for increased frustration and road rage.

In bringing forward this change, the Welsh government has used the strapline “20mph. A bit slower but a whole lot better”, and has led the campaign with the promise of reducing collisions and saving lives. It says that in the time a car travelling at 20mph can stop, a car at 30mph would still be doing 24mph. It goes on to suggest that streets and communities will be safer, meaning people will walk more, improving health and wellbeing.

Evidence suggests the Welsh government is broadly correct. Reducing the default speed limit to 20mph will reduce casualties, providing drivers with more time to react if things go wrong.

Following the implementation of 20mph limits in Edinburgh, for example, the number of collisions in one year fell by 40%. There were 23% fewer deaths and serious injuries were reduced by 33%.

Walking and cycling may increase too. We know that higher vehicle speeds are a barrier to walking and cycling, especially among older adults.

Opposition

Not everyone in Wales is happy about the drop to 20mph. Several petitions have attempted to stop the change, while the Welsh Conservatives oppose blanket reductions. Reports have also emerged of 20mph signs being defaced.

A common complaint is that journey times will be slower. But a UK government report in 2018 looked at 12 case studies in England where 20mph limits were implemented, concluding that journey times increased by only 3% in residential areas and 5% in city centres, adding less than a minute to a five-mile trip.

Also, as traffic flows are often more interrupted in urban areas – with frequent junctions and traffic lights, for example – a slight reduction in maximum permitted speeds may smooth out the traffic flow, reducing perceived delays.

Driver behaviour is, of course, a complex subject. Some drivers simply do not want to slow down and feel they have a right to drive fast. Meanwhile, other drivers feel the pressure to conform with other people’s behaviour, fitting in with the prevailing norms on the road.

Drivers’ opinions

Charles was involved in a qualitative study, published in 2014, that attempted to categorise drivers’ opinions to work out how we might change attitudes and behaviour using the “diffusion of innovation” model, which is a theory that seeks to explain how, why and at what rate new ideas and technology spread.

In the study, drivers were sorted into categories of support for 20mph speed limits based on their answers to a series of questions. One group of “champions” was wholly supportive of 20mph regardless of others around them, even if tailgated or flashed by other vehicles.

In contrast, another group defined as “pragmatists” were more aware of others’ behaviour and were influenced by it, feeling the pressure to speed up. Many in this group had little awareness of speed limits in general, driving much more to the conditions or as others were around them.

And the final group of “opponents” tended to be strongly against speed limits. This tended to be reflected by how they set their own speed limits according to conditions.

The study suggested that champions respond well to information about the benefits of 20mph limits. But pragmatists need to accept that 20mph limits are normal and supported by most other drivers.

We know from the study that there is support for 20mph but also some ambivalence, which can be overcome after a bedding in period.

The truth is that most people are not opposed to 20mph speed limits, but a sizeable minority are. Welsh government commissioned research suggests 80% were either slightly or strongly in favour of 20mph limits in 2021, but that this fell to 63% in 2022.

This is not uncommon, however, as people’s support for change tends to grow initially but then falls off the closer it gets to implementation. Eventually, people may come around to the idea.

But it needs a government willing to stand its ground when negative public opinion emerges just before implementation, as we are seeing now.

It is time we stopped accepting death and injury in the name of freedom of mobility. Default 20mph speed limits are a good start but they must be accompanied by driver education programmes and police enforcement to be effective.

And, of course, non-motoring road users still need more pavements, cycle lanes, safe crossing points and efficient and affordable public transport options.

This article was first published on The Conversation

The Conversation


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Gareth Wardell
Gareth Wardell
5 months ago

The compliance with the 20 MPH restriction will be higher if additional physical restrictions are added such as humps and Road narrowing combined with cameras. And, then, what of freedom?

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
5 months ago
Reply to  Gareth Wardell

What of the freedom for pedestrians and cyclists and others not to be knocked down by speeding or inattentive drivers?

Sarah Smith
Sarah Smith
5 months ago
Reply to  Padi Phillips

How about learning to cross the road?

Richard
Richard
5 months ago
Reply to  Gareth Wardell

Gareth. The game is on for this rushed but well meant measure ; research, pause and fine tuning is now the focus not Marks legacy.

Peter Cuthbert
Peter Cuthbert
5 months ago

As a cyclist and ‘laid back driver’ I am pleased to see the introduction of the new limits. However, some of the roads that really need to be 20MPH have been ignored. For example, Llanbadarn Road in Aberystwyth is set to remain 30mph and yet it is a major artery to 3 schools and a leisure centre as well as being lined along its length with housing. Ceredigion council go on about their ‘Active Travel’ plans but surely 20MPH on that road would be a big step towards safer cycling. Of course the really sensible thing would be to make… Read more »

Last edited 5 months ago by Peter Cuthbert
Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter Cuthbert

Nooo, you’re surely not suggesting that Ceredigion CC are a bunch of woodentops, are you?

saveenergy
saveenergy
5 months ago

Drakeford is on record saying … “Spain, which has had this policy in place over recent years, have seen a 20 per cent reduction in urban deaths on the roads.” “the example of Spain, which made a similar change in 2019, and has since reported a fall in urban road deaths.” That’s a good example of how to lie with statistics, compare apples with fish & then cherry pick !! Drippy knows how to lie, he’s had years of practice. Spain urban speed went down from 50 to 30 km/hr, that = 31 to 18 mph. Here’s the real data… Read more »

Barry Pandy
Barry Pandy
5 months ago
Reply to  saveenergy

Referring to Mark Drakeford as ‘Drippy’ doesn’t make for a cogent political argument.

saveenergy
saveenergy
5 months ago
Reply to  Barry Pandy

‘Drippy’ doesn’t make any cogent political arguments.

Gareth
Gareth
5 months ago
Reply to  saveenergy

Spain has different speed limits for different types of vehicle and road. 20 kph or 12.4 mph is the limit in pedestrian areas on urban roads, and according to the Spanish Gov, road deaths are going down since the changes were made. See the report of the Directorate General of traffic.
https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&opi=89978449&url=https://www.surinenglish.com/spain/speed-limits-towns-20220517101946-nt.html&ved=2ahUKEwiE5rrJ0q-BAxXJVUEAHUElAmwQFnoECCYQAQ&usg=AOvVaw0pTCTtQzJXH_LqInG8w4Bw

saveenergy
saveenergy
5 months ago
Reply to  Gareth
Evan Aled Bayton
Evan Aled Bayton
5 months ago

Essentially Musk’s idea of a high power electric car is absurd and yet another example of the human tendency not to review use of technology but rather to model it on pre-existing stuff. The way forward with the 20 mph speed limit is for urban cars to be small, light, low power, and slow. These will be more easily used in urban areas much as electric cars and taxis were used in New York in the early 1900s. The days of the ridiculous use of massive 4×4 vehicles to take the kids to school ought to be numbered. Cities will… Read more »

JimJam
JimJam
5 months ago

While I can respect the authors educational credentials, I still believe that this is another ‘fluff’ piece designed to soften the blow, published by a sympathetic media source. I’m a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and the Alliance of Commercial Writers, and I’m also certified by Google in digital marketing, and have 30+ years in the automotive industry, right up to F1. As with most articles published by nation.cymru, Wales Online, or North Wales Live regarding this ridiculous situation, there are some elements of truth here, and while they’re happy using statistics to prove their argument, there are… Read more »

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
5 months ago
Reply to  JimJam

A legacy to keep him warm on those cold benches in the House of Lords perhaps …

Settle for what is achievable, no way are he and the Baroness going to fix the health service or such like and the constabulary are there to see it through for him, whatever the man driving down the street thinks…

max wallis
max wallis
5 months ago

The Labour-led Vale of Glamorgan Council set out to sabotage 20mph by declaring all A and B roads should be 30mph. We’ve had to campaign to knock out roads from this anti-20mph agenda. Transport for Wales have paid for some 50 ‘exception’ Orders and refuse to intervene to even comment on breaches of the Govt policy. The say exceptions require “robust and evidenced” cases, but the Labour Councillors cynically rubber-stamped the Party line.

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