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Wales’s new speed limit, fake news and the ‘war on motorists’

Sean Thompson reports:

In the UK, more than 80 people a day on average are killed or seriously injured on the roads, a toll that would prompt national outrage in any other sphere of life. The evidence, from both Britain and other countries, that lower speeds reduce both the number and severity of collisions and deaths and serious injuries is overwhelming. But the mixture of hysterical social media bile, wild conspiracy theories, misinformation and cynical political opportunism that has greeted the new default speed limit in built up areas in Wales seems to have marked a new low in the manipulation of public opinion

Joseph Goebbels said “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself.” Today’s populist, and would-be pupulist politicians and the journalists and Twitter warriors who amplify their dog whistles have learnt well from Goebbels.

Andrew RT Davis, Leader of the Welsh Tories, has been at the forefront of spreading an extraordinary mist mash of misleading information and downright lies about the new speed limit Wales, with, of course the enthusiastic assistance of the Tory press and battalions of internet warriors, who have now been joined by Rishi Sunak in claiming that it’s part the the ‘War on Motorists’.

It’s claimed that the Welsh Government has instituted a ‘blanket 20 mph speed limit across Wales’. It hasn’t. Legally, local highway authorities are responsible for local roads; the Welsh Government isn’t. However, the government can change the guidance to local authorities, and this what it’s done – shifting the default 30mph limit in built up areas to 20, but giving local authorities the flexibility to keep roads at 30mph where they deem it appropriate.

In September 2018 a resolution tabled in the Senedd (by the Welsh Tories!) “to introduce legislation so that a 20mph speed limit becomes the standard speed limit in Welsh residential areas” was passed with the support of all parties apart from UKIP and a Task Force was established to examine how best to do it.

Increasingly over the past few years, local authorities across the UK (61 so far, with Cornwall due to be number 62) have introduced 20mph limits in residential neighbourhoods and near schools and hospitals, as there is solid evidence that this reduces the number of collisions and of pedestrian and cyclist deaths. However, until now, in order to reduce the speed limit on a specific road from 30mph to 20 a local authority would have to issue a separateTraffic Regulation Order (TRO) at a cost of around £15-20k each time, so changing multiple roads to 20 was costly and time consuming for local authorities.

Therefore, the recommendation of Senedd’s Task Force was that this way of doing things needed to be turned on its head, making the guidance that the default limit in built up areas should be 20mph, while allowing councils to opt out roads where a 20mph limit just doesn’t make sense. While some local authorise have chosen to stick

rigidly to the narrowest interpretation of the guidance, others have chosen to keep all or most of their main roads at 30mph – it’s a matter for each local authority to decide.

But now, Davis, a man who took part in a phot-op with himself holding a ’20’s Plenty’ poster and who has raised hypocrisy to an art form, says that his party are in favour of ‘targeted measures’ but claims that the Welsh Government has adopted a ‘blanket’ approach. However, with local authorities having the power to keep roads at 30mph or change 20mph limits back to 30, the Government’s policy is already demonstrably a targeted one.

So what is the government’s guidance on which roads might be exempted from the default limit? The criteria are these:

• Is the road within 100m of a school or other educational establishment?

• Is the road within 100m of a community centre or hospital?

• Do residential or retail properties front the road and exceed 5 or more properties per 250m of road?

The opponents of the new speed limit almost all say that they are in favour of a 20mph limit near schools, hospitals, shops and in residential roads. That’s exactly what the new guidance requires. For any other roads local authorities are free not to introduce a 20mph limit or to return to 30 if they wish.

Opponents of the new speed limit claim that its won’t improve road safety. They’re wrong; a study by the UK Transport Research Laboratory has shown that every 1mph reduction in average urban speeds can result in a 6% fall in the number of casualties.

The Task Force established by the Welsh government (made up of representatives of 16 interested organisations, ranging from the Road Haulage Association to Guide Dogs) concluded that:

“There is overwhelming evidence that lower speeds result in fewer collisions and a reduced severity of injuries; and consistent evidence that casualties are reduced when 20mph limits are introduced. It should be noted that these benefits are achieved even when average speeds do not drop to 20mph – any speed reduction leads to a positive outcome.”

Edinburgh was the first city in Scotland to introduce a 20mph speed limit, in 2018. Analysis of data from the 36 months following the introduction of the 20mph limit showed a 30% decrease in collisions compared to the 36 months before, resulting in a 31% reduction in casualties, with average speeds continuing to fall year on year. As a result, the Scottish Government has committed to making 20mph the norm across all councils by 2025.

In Spain, where the speed limit on the majority of its roads were reduced to 30km/h in 2019, there have been 20% fewer urban road deaths, with fatalities of pedestrians by reduced by 24% and cyclists 34%.

One of the many themes of the internet warriors (such as the new limit will damage car engines, increase fuel consumption, pollution, congestion and accidents) is that the new speed limit won’t work because people will take no notice of it. But yet again, the evidence is clear – it will.

A study by Edinburgh Napier University has shown that the rollout of 20mph speed limits across 97 villages and towns in the Scottish Borders has reduced average speeds by 3mph. Significantly, the report also concluded that the change in driver behaviour continued well after the beginning of the trial, with average speeds still well below previous levels after eight months.

Most dramatically though, in Wales just a week after the introduction of the new default limit, Agilysis released a report analysing GPS data from the satnav firm Tom Tom of over 25 million vehicle journeys, showing that there had been a 2.9mph reduction in median speeds and and an average journey time increase of between just 45 and 63 seconds. Their report said “The immediate impact on traffic speeds in Wales has been astonishing, and far greater than many would have predicted. Welsh drivers are, on the whole, accepting lower speed limits and have changed their behaviour accordingly.”

There was uproar over the introduction of compulsory seatbelt wearing in1983. Within a month 85% of car drivers were using them and of course today most of us wouldn’t dream of setting off in our cars without putting our seatbelt on. Or perhaps you might remember the huge fuss when pubs, restaurants, workplaces and other public spaces became smoke free in 2007? Would anyone want to go back?

The fact is that more people friendly roads are good for everyone including car drivers. The experience of cities in the Netherlands, the most cycle friendly country in the world, shows that driving is much less stressful within towns and cities. That’s because so many people are able to take local journeys on foot, on by bicycle or by public transport and only use their cars when it is necessary, there are fewer cars in many urban areas, less congestion and pollution and fewer collisions.

So the 20mph limit in built up areas is just one modest step towards making our towns and cities safer, cleaner and more pleasant to live in – for all of us, no matter how we choose to travel.

One thought on “Wales’s new speed limit, fake news and the ‘war on motorists’

  1. In the late 1990’s, a group at Leeds University were commissioned to do a study of the feasibility of “External Vehicle Speed Control” using GPS. They estimated a reduction of accident numbers of over 20% in a mandatory system. EVSC means no need for speed bumps, speed cameras or speeding fines. Speed limits could be changed from outside, as the situation required. The simplest option then was to have the limits loaded into the system’s software using a CD ROM, but they did advocate for a remote system, which became a simple matter only a few years later.

    The Leeds group estimated that the whole fleet would have EVSC in 19 years if it was a requirement to fit it to all new cars, so if it had happened, almost all vehicles would have it, but I think that it would have saved money and more lives if it has also been fitted to cars retrospectively during their MOTs. The motoring lobby went crazy – an infringement of driver autonomy, they said – and made sure it was never implemented. The result? Maybe 30,000 unnecessary deaths and hundreds of thousands of unnecessary injuries and many millions of tonnes of extra CO2 and particulate emissions (the system could also prevent aggressive driving).

    Strangely, the lobby seems pretty blasé about self-driving cars. I wonder if they think their speed is not going to be externally controlled?

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