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A return to 20mph speed limits

In Edwardian times at the beginning of the 20th century, the national speed limit was just 20mph. That speed limit was in force for 28 years between 1903 and 1931.

Since then it has been increased as cars have become safer and more sophisticated and discussions are currently in progress about raising the motorway speed limit to 80mph. At the same time, many towns and cities across the UK are turning the clock back to Edwardian times by reintroducing 20mph on some stretches of road.

But what is the justification for re-instating these historic limits, and do they actually work?

Evidence for a 20mph speed limit

The case for imposing 20mph speed limits in residential areas is pretty clear-cut:

Lower speed limits have also been shown to reduce noise in residential areas, with a drop of 3 decibels when cutting the limit from 30mph to 20mph. Driving more slowly also cuts emissions and lowers pollution due to less acceleration and braking.

Yet despite this, there is often a great deal of public opposition to 20mph speed limits being introduced, and not only from drivers.

What are the main objections to 20mph zones?

Most of them centre on various myths about 20mph limits that have circulated over the years. Birmingham City Council, which has introduced the limits in selected areas despite opposition during the public consultation, even went as far as publishing a ‘Mythbuster Guide’.

Here were some of the myths they uncovered and the truth behind them:




20mph limits don’t make roads safer The evidence is overwhelming that the limits reduce the number and severity of accidents.
20mph limits increase journey times In most cases, the limits are only on residential and city centre roads, which are a small part of most journeys, so do not increase travelling time significantly.
20mph limits increase congestion It’s easy to assume that slow moving traffic will clog up the roads, but in fact, slower traffic has been shown to move more smoothly, everywhere from local roads to major motorways.
20mph limits will make public transport slower Most city busses rarely get above 20mph between stops anyway, so they will not be affected by lower speed limits.
20mph limits increase the costs to business Studies show that delivery vans actually use 12% less fuel when driving slower, so the limits actually save money for business.


Are 20mph limits enforceable?

Another argument against 20mph limits is that they are hard to enforce on residential roads, making them largely ineffective. This point of view was reinforced in 2013 when the Association of Chief Police Officers admitted to a parliamentary enquiry that police forces around the country have been told not to enforce the limits.

However, other police sources were quick to point out that the equipment used by speed checks was accurate down to 5mph, so enforcement is as easy as for any other speed limit.

20mph limits are here to stay

Love them or hate them, 20mph speed limits in towns and cities look like they are here to stay. Where they have been in place for a while they have also had some unexpected benefits.

In Bristol people increased their walking by between 10% and 36% and upped their cycling by between 4% and 37% in areas where 20mph limits were introduced. That meant fewer cars on the roads and more people getting some healthy exercise.

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