The pros and cons of Wales’s 20mph speed limit

Wales will become the first UK nation to impose 20mph restrictions on residential roads

A 20mph speed limit
(Image credit: Halbergman/Getty Images)

The speed limit will be lowered to 20mph in built-up areas in Wales in a bid to reduce traffic accidents and encourage residents to cycle or use public transport.

Under proposals from the Labour-led Welsh government, new slower speed limits are “currently being trialled in eight communities across Wales”, and are now set to be “rolled out nationally” in September 2023 after new legislation was passed in the Welsh parliament this week, said The Guardian.

The new, lower 20mph speed limit, a UK first, will not be imposed as a blanket speed limit on all roads but will instead be set as the default limit, “leaving local authorities to engage with communities to decide which roads should remain at 30mph”, added the paper.

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1. Pro: reduces risk of collisions

The Labour-led government in Wales made the move to reduce the speed limit in response to research that showed the majority of people hurt in collisions in Wales were on 30mph roads, with over 40% of these incidents leading to someone being seriously injured or killed.

Campaigners for lower speed limits “argue the chances of someone surviving being hit by a car at 20mph rather than 30mph is seven times higher while stopping distances are almost halved”, said the BBC.

“We know that 20mph zones reduce the speed of traffic, reduce accidents – particularly accidents to children,” Wales’s First Minister Mark Drakeford said. “We want to see that become the default position right across Wales.”

2. Con: adds to journey times

The lower speed limit has already proven to be divisive in areas where trials have taken place. Some motorists have complained of “more congestion and journeys taking longer”, said the BBC.

One resident near to where the new speed limit was being trialled told BBC Radio Wales that the 20mph limit was causing “chaos”.

“Buckley is on a hill so every road coming in has an incline,” said Adie Drury who has started a petition against the introduction of the new speed limit. “Trying to do 20mph on a really steep hill is causing chaos. It’s causing more emissions.”

3. Pro: saves money

The Welsh government has said the improved road safety as a result of a reduction in average speeds on roads could save the government millions.

It has calculated that it could save £58m within 30 years, said the BBC, as a result of reduced emergency service demand and hospital treatment.

4. Con: poor compliance

RAC research suggests that compliance with 20mph limits is “poor”, with many road users viewing slower speed limits as “inappropriate”.

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, RAC road safety spokesperson Simon Williams said: “Rather than setting a default 20mph limit on all restricted roads it would be better to target areas where they are most needed – for example on residential roads or in areas where there is high footfall – as opposed to main ‘arterial’ roads where there are few pedestrians.”

5. Pro: better for the community

Lee Waters, the Welsh deputy minister for climate change, told the BBC that while it may take time to “win hearts and minds” over the change, the new legislation will bring improvements in the quality of life for the whole community.

“The evidence is clear, decreasing speeds not only reduces accidents and saves lives, but helps improve people’s quality of life – making our streets and communities a safer and more welcoming place for cyclists and pedestrians, whilst helping reduce our environmental impact,” he told the broadcaster.

6. Con: money could be better spent

Opposition politicians in the Welsh Conservatives have criticised the Welsh government for spending £32m on the scheme while much of the country is struggling with the cost of living.

“The Welsh Conservatives are not against introducing 20mph speed limits outside schools, playgrounds, places of worship and high streets, but a blanket roll-out is quite frankly ludicrous,” said shadow transport minister Natasha Asghar.

“With a price tag of more than £32 million, is this really money well spent at a time when the Labour Government should be focused on tackling the big issues at hand such as the cost-of-living? I don't think it is, and I am sure residents across the country will be thinking the exact same.”

And while the Welsh government may hope that a lower speed limit will encourage a change in behaviour and prompt people to cycle more or use public transport, there is little infrastructure in place to support such a change.

“We’ve no cycle lanes, have narrow lanes and public transport is poor. We don’t all live in Cardiff and have Cardiff’s infrastructure, public transport and industry on our doorstep,” one member of the public told the BBC.

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