Brian Macdowall is the Director of the Alliance of British Drivers.

20mphThe Alliance of British Drivers (ABD) is not opposed to all 20mph speed limits. They can be appropriate to narrow roads with hazards, or weak bridges for instance.

However, there is an orchestrated national campaign to impose a ‘one size fits all’ 20mph limit in every local authority area, with the possible exception of main roads. This is commonly known as ‘wide-area 20’ zones. (In London, which is still largely run by Ken Livingstone’s aides at Transport for London, there is an official feeling towards making Central London such a zone, including even its main roads.)

Most of the authorities adopting the zones tend to be Lab or Lib Dem dominated, although others, like Conservative-controlled West Sussex have been pressed into adoption of the policy (Chichester) or launching a consultation (Worthing).

Lobbyists for the zones often advance a vague and flowery justification that this funereal limit will somehow ‘make residential areas more pleasant’ or ‘encourage cycling and walking’ or even ‘help fight obesity’.

The leader of Herts’ Lib Dems, Stephen Giles-Medhurst, has claimed that travelling at 30mph doesn’t allow for a child darting out into the road or a pedestrian having a momentary lapse and stepping out into oncoming traffic.

The implication that the law must be changed to make life easier those that disregard the law and the Highway Code is about as logical as forcing inter-city trains to crawl at a snail’s pace in case someone chooses to trespass on the track.

I sometimes hear that someone hit by a vehicle at 20mph might come off less badly than if hit at 30mph, but this is missing the point.

Pedestrians can be killed by traffic travelling legally at 20mph or even 10mph. Effective road safety policy should be about preventing them from being hit at any speed, through sound road user education and engineering out hazards.

This would be particularly beneficial near schools, where the Highway Code already requires drivers to adjust their speed to the conditions. Improved signage and vehicle activated signs might help to ensure awareness.

This year the ABD organised a mailshot to councillors across the UK whose councils had not gone for the zones. Out of those councillors who replied expressing an opinion, 80 per cent were against the idea. Interestingly, opposition came from a wide spectrum – Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, UKIP and independents.

One pointed out that the current built-up area 30mph limit has existed for around 70 years, during which time, cars have benefited from a range of new safety features such as power assisted brakes, enhanced pedestrian protection etc.

In spite of fierce lobbying by anti-car groups, those authorities not adopting the policy are in a majority. Councils rejecting ‘wide-area 20’ are as diverse as Norfolk, Barnet, Westminster City Council, Kirklees and Wiltshire.

Norfolk’s director of environment, transport and development, Mike Jackson, said:

“Within Norfolk at present, the commitment of funds to the implementation of ‘blanket’ 20 mph schemes would not offer good value for money compared to other measures to reduce casualties…The council should continue to prioritise schemes that target reductions in killed and serious injuries and should not divert resources to area-wide 20 mph speed restrictions…”

Having already provided funding for some of these schemes, the Department for Transport is having its doubts. It has now engaged consultants in a sustained study to examine the effectiveness of the zones.

The picture on casualties is far from consistent; for instance, Portsmouth, an early adopter, has seen an increase in Killed and Seriously Injured numbers, but a decrease in slighter casualties.

Police forces such as Kent and Sussex have declined to police the zones with any priority; a force might claim to support the introduction of zones only if will be ‘self-enforcing’.

This raises the issue of traffic calming, which can be expensive. Speed bumps, for instance, compromise road safety as they can damage vehicle tyres and suspensions. They can also slow down ambulances and jar patients aboard; and vibrations from heavier vehicles can damage properties.

Professor John Wann of Royal Holloway College has warned against the zones, as they are not respected by drivers. Widespread non-compliance after introducing zones was seen in Bath and in Islington, where the council ignored local police recommendations.

Shadow Transport Secretary Mary Creagh recently caused amazement when she claimed that the Islington zone had resulted in “40 fewer dead people” and called for more zones so that children were free to “roam wild”. The zone, costing half a million pounds, actually saw higher average speeds, with drivers typically breaking the limit on 156 of the 158 roads covered.

Councils increasingly have to live within tighter means, so should target scarce resources on known blackspots and hazards, such as eradicating potholes, to the benefit of all road users. A ‘one size fits all’ approach will just be throwing good money after bad.

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