Saturday, 19 January 2013

Setting Local Speed Limits

The department for transport has updated its guidance to highway authorities for setting local speed limits which is a step forward, but it has missed a massive opportunity with 20mph speed limits.

Last summer/autumn, the Government, through the DfT, consulted on changing its advice on setting local speed limits. Of course, with our big sports day, I am not surprised if you missed it, chances are your local council missed it as well.

Well, as with all good consultations, the responses have been carefully considered and new guidance has been issued - more on that in a bit.

The consultation responses are interesting. 250 individuals responded, but only 83 local authorities bothered. Now, DfT contacts local authorities and other groups for such things routinely and never advertises such consultations. The individuals will be people interested in the subject, but even so, they still outnumber the people that introduce speed limits!

As usual, the police made a big play about 20mph zones needing to be self-enforcing (traffic calming); a view echoed by the magistrates. The police are really reluctant to enforce speed limits anyway and 20mph scares them right off.


It is important to know that a 20mph zone is a traffic-calmed area subject to this speed limit with signs at the entry points saying Zone. A 20mph limit is simply shown by the normal round speed limit signs which say 20 and with little 20 signs used as repeaters. For a limit to be introduced, traffic needs to be running at less than 24mph (I have simplified) and a Zone needs to be traffic calmed.

There are some very strange organisations listed such as AA Limos and the MAD Driving School. But, they have every right to comment as did CTC, BRAKE and Living Streets.

So, in introducing the new guidance. DfT states;
Speed limits should be evidence-led and self-explaining and seek to reinforce people’s assessment of what is a safe speed to travel. They should encourage self-compliance. Speed limits should be seen by drivers as the maximum rather than a target speed.
Traffic authorities are asked to keep their speed limits under review with changing circumstances, and to consider the introduction of more 20 miles per hour limits and zones, over time, in urban areas and built-up village streets that are primarily residential, to ensure greater safety for pedestrians and cyclists, using the criteria contained in this guidance.
I recommend that any campaigner reads the guidance in detail as it will arm you with the knowledge to push for lower urban speed limits. To be fair to DfT, there is a hint of pushing local authorities to look at more 20mph Zones and limits, especially where walking and cycling are a large component of movements. But, the requirement for 20mph to be self-enforcing is still very much in evidence.

I have designed and built quite a few 20mph Zones and they are all traffic calmed, many with humps. I don't like humps as they create complaints about noise and vibration and are not that great to cycle over. But, if designed correctly, they absolutely reduce traffic speed and residents have often said that you come to live with them. They can also expensive to build and maintain but as stated, the police don't like to have to enforce the 20mph speed limit and humps are often the answer.

20mph limits are good for lower casualties, can reduce traffic dominance, but are not the whole answer - closure of rat runs would also massively improve walking and cycling conditions and the perception of safety.

So, what is the missed opportunity? I am no fan of politicians and the less I say about the Coalition the better, but there are quite a few bits of legislation and many cuts they have imposed on local authorities in a very short time. 

With speed limits and specifically 20mph, they could have very easily imposed legislation to tell local authorities that by a certain date (2 years would have been enough) all lit roads currently with a 30mph limit (called restricted roads) would become 20mph. Any road which is to remain at 30mph would need to be selected in advance and signed accordingly. This could have been rolled our regionally like digital TV, had an awareness campaign and the police told to get on with it. It could have been funded out of the billion pounds they have recently announced to build more roads with.

Of course, there would be local rows over which streets would stay at 30mph, but such a plan would have shown decisive leadership on the part of the government and local politicians would had to have stood up and be counted on their approach to walking, cycling and road safety. This is how we could have started a cultural shift.

Instead, we still have guidance suggesting we might think about 20mph speed limits at bit more, if traffic is either going slow already or if we have money for traffic calming, oh and if the police go along with us.

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