Speed limits: is 20 plenty?

Many Welsh drivers are 'furious' at new limit, but pedestrians are 'far less likely to be killed'

A man holds a sign during a protest against 20 mile per hour speed limits in Wales
More than 400,000 people have signed a petition protesting the move by the Welsh Labour government
(Image credit: Matthew Horwood/Getty)

"Many people retire to Wales in search of a more gentle pace of life," said The Times, "and good luck to them." 

But the decision by its Labour government to impose a default 20mph speed limit in built-up areas is surely a step too far.

'Eyes glued to the speedometer'

A very large number of people in Wales are not retired, and are reliant on their cars to get to work, said the paper's editorial, and the point of a car is that its "velocity generally exceeds that of a walking human", or an ambling sheep. Having 20mph zones near schools and hospitals is defensible, on safety grounds. But a blanket limit will force drivers to "crawl" down every residential street, "eyes glued to the speedometer rather than the road ahead", which doesn't sound very safe at all.

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Many Welsh drivers are furious, said Dan Sales in the Daily Mail. More than 400,000 people have signed a petition urging the government in Cardiff to scrap the 20mph law, which affects 7,700 miles of roads, and will require 30,000 signs to be changed, at a cost of £32 million. 

Yet drivers seem to be obeying it, said Jonathon Hill on WalesOnline. Although rigorous police enforcement has not yet begun, a study of 25 million journeys has suggested that more than half of drivers are sticking to the limit. On average, they're driving 2.9mph slower than before the rollout, adding between 45 and 63 seconds to the typical journey time.

'A small price to pay'

Wales isn't an outlier in all this, said transport editor Nicholas Hellen in The Sunday Times. Scotland has committed to cutting the speed limit on all "appropriate" roads by 2025; almost half of England's highway authorities already impose a 20mph limit in built-up areas.

The case for it rests on a simple argument: vehicle stopping distances at 20mph are half what they are at 30mph, which means pedestrians are far less likely to be killed. In Spain, which imposed a 30kmh default limit on single-lane streets in all cities in 2021, deaths are down by 14%.

I've come to love the 20mph zones in London, said Catherine Bennett in The Observer, both as a driver (more time to react, less risk of killing someone), and as a pedestrian (crossing roads is more relaxing, and "the world seems a tiny bit more liveable"). For such big gains, the increased travel time – about a minute on average – seems a very small price to pay.

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