Setting local speed limits

The Department for Transport has published a consultation on setting local speed limits. The proposed guidance sets out the framework that traffic authorities should follow when setting and reviewing local speed limits on single and dual carriageway roads in urban and rural areas, and should be finalised by the end of 2012.

The most controversial speed limit proposal in the last 12 months however isn’t in this consultation – lifting the motorway speed limit to 80 (from 70) is a national change and does not affect the responsibilities of local authorities. However, the arguments played out when this was proposed earlier in the year were a reminder that legislation connected with car use and driver behaviour is a vexed area.

Surprisingly then, there seems to be broad agreement on the measures set out in this guidance, although local authorities must still grapple with balancing the benefits of getting from A to B as quickly as possible with the impacts of that journey for the communities who live along the way, and the evidence that high speed crashes are much more likely to lead to death and serious injury than low speed ones (see for example the British Medical Association report released in July 2012 called Healthy Transport = Healthy Lives).

This guidance is helpful in that it reminds users of the overall framework in which speed limits should be set. This should be strengthened further when the speed limits appraisal tool is published later in the year.

When the guidance was published it was the proposals for rural areas that garnered the most headlines; the current level of casualties suggests that speed limits need a rethink on some rural roads, and there was an assumption that local authorities will get on and do this (The Telegraph reported that speed limits on ‘swathes of country roads’ are set to be cut to 40mph), although that conclusion seems premature.

The consultation also brings the guidance on 20mph zones and limits in urban areas up to date. It estimates that over 2,000 schemes (mainly zones) have been implemented in England, and cites research demonstrating that the frequency of average annual collisions in 20mph areas may drop by around 60 per cent (perhaps it was a silly season story, but The Sun among others claimed on 11 August that new DfT figures show that casualties in 20mph zones are ‘soaring’ – Sustrans and other organisations argue that the figures fail to take account of the big increase in 20 mph zones, and that the increase in serious incidents is only 1, but converted to a percentage looks much more serious at 17 per cent). At their annual party conference in September the Liberal Democrats will vote on a motion to reduce the 30mph speed limit to 20mph in all residential areas.

I live in a 20mph zone in the London Borough of Islington. Last year the council introduced a 20mph zone across all the roads it controls. It wasn’t without controversy as the Metropolitan Police refused to commit to enforcing it because of the expense.

The guidance suggests that any speed limit needs to be introduced with the support of communities and the police, and needs to be accompanied by awareness raising and other measures to change driver behaviour. In Bristol this included targeting staff from the council and NHS Bristol: research there suggested that community nurses collectively drive an average of 3,500 miles a day. By keeping to the speed limit in 20mph areas they – and other council and NHS employees – could act as ‘pace vehicles’ and help to ensure that other drivers observed the lower speed limit too.

My hunch is that one of the tensions that will always play out locally, and which elected members will find themselves at the centre of, is that setting lower speed limits without any obvious enforcement will look weak and risks being ignored.

However, it’s still an important part of achieving a long-term culture change towards creating safer road environments for all users. I raised the question of enforcing lower speed limits at a cycling conference last year with Philip Darnton, the former Chair of Cycling England. While he saw a role for the police in clamping down occasionally on speeding, his view was that lowering speed limits is more a statement of intent. “Behaviour change is difficult,” he said, “and culture change takes a lifetime…you just have to say that [lower speeds] will one day be one of those things that when drivers see there is a critical mass [of cyclists] they know to be more careful.”

As local authorities take on public health responsibilities from April 2013 they will have a bigger stake in assessing the benefits of this cultural shift towards lower speed limits. If the advocates, such as the BMA, are right that lower speeds are one part of creating environments that encourage people to be more active through walking and cycling, then implementing widespread zones will be a way of trying to improve population health and reduce health inequalities, and of trimming the long-term public health bill.

This post is based on a Local Government Information Unit member briefing by Andrew Ross, LGIU Associate. For more information about LGiU membership and briefings see www.lgiu.org.uk or contact chris.naylor@lgiu.org.uk.