Speed and speed limits are always controversial. They get a massive emotional response. Stand by the side of the road and almost everyone feels angry about ‘those bloody speeding drivers’. Lower limits are a superficially attractive solution, but is a 20mph limit the way to get people driving slowly and safely in villages?
Is there a problem with speed-related accidents in the village?
Bampton’s accident record, fortunately as low as it is, shows there is no problem with speed – at least not as a cause of crashes.
But do people think drivers are going too fast?
Pretty much everyone – me included – is hacked off with people driving too fast. I’m sick of idiots belting through the village and past my house, even though they’re often still within the speed limit. So, given there’s no history of speed-related accidents, lowering the limit isn’t an objective decision – it’s an emotional one. They’re not ‘speeding drivers’, because most aren’t speeding but they’re still driving too fast for comfort. So what’s going to make people in Bampton feel as though traffic speeds are ‘right’?
Will a 20 limit work?
Government advice and studies make it clear that 20mph limits won’t reduce crashes. “The evidence available to date (for 20mph limits) shows no significant change in the short term in collisions and casualties in the majority of the case studies.” This mirrors studies elsewhere in the UK. (source: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/20-mph-speed-limits-on-roads)
This isn’t just recent experience. J.J. Leeming was the County Surveyor in Oxfordshire in the 1940s. He worked on a similar project where a village demanded a lowered speed limit because the Parish Council believed it would reduce crashes. In his book ‘Road Accidents – Prevent or Punish‘ he writes, “In the three years before (introduction of the speed limit) there had been twelve accidents. In the three years after, there were nineteen… As was my usual practice, I reported this to the local Road Safety Committee. At the meeting the Parish Council representative said: ‘My council doesn’t mind if the accidents have increased. We have got our speed limit!’
But will it actually make people drive slower?
Again, that DfT study referenced above is useful. It says “Journey speed analysis shows that the median speed [after the imposition of a 20mph limit] has fallen by 0.7mph in residential areas and 0.9mph in city centre areas.”
This matches more recent evidence in Oxford showing an average speed reduction of 0.8mph where the city spent £300,000 reducing 30 limits to 20.
In other words, yes, a 20mph limit will make people drive slower – between 0.7mph and 0.9mph. Expensive, barely measurable and hardly significant.
So will a 20 limit assuage people’s annoyance and anger at ’speeding drivers’.
Sadly not. That DfT study again: “The majority of resident (about two-thirds) and non-resident drivers (just over half) have not noticed a reduction in the speed of vehicles, and do not perceive there to be fewer vehicles driving at excessive speeds for the area.”
So we’ll have more sign clutter, probably more white paint and spend more money but won’t even stop people feeling angry and annoyed. That’s not a win for either the Parish Council or residents.
Why won’t a 20 limit work?
Speed limits are extraordinarily ineffective at reducing vehicle speeds – in fact, it’s a job they were never intended to do.
Limits were designed to reflect the behaviour of the law-abiding majority (the idiot and antisocial minority will exceed them no matter what) which is why they are ineffective at making people drive slower when they are lowered below the ‘natural’ speed for a road. If you don’t believe me, have a read of this.
Think about it – were you driving precisely at 30 as you went past the 30mph signs in Curbridge this morning? If you’ve driven down Burford Hill or up Corn Street, were you sticking exactly to 20mph or were you driving to the way the road – and the hazards around you – looked? Limits are legal, not physical, absolutes.
Even Department for Transport Circular 01/2013, probably the most hardline speed limit setting document yet, states “Speed limits should be evidence-led and self-explaining…”
Many of Bampton’s roads – apart from narrow residential streets where cars are almost universally running at sub-20mph anyway – don’t make sense at 20mph. The alignment is too open and wide with broad views, leading to 30 (or even higher at the village edges) as a natural speed rather than 20. Where roads are narrow, most vehicles are already driving well below 30 and those drivers driving too fast won’t be deterred by a 20mph limit.
Safe speeds vary constantly – up and down – from driver to driver and second to second. Of course, that doesn’t give an excuse to rag through the centre of the village at 50mph, but neither – in my opinion – does it give either OCC or the Parish Council the right to force a driver to drive at 20mph on a newly lowered road in clear, low-hazard conditions where 30 was apparently safe two weeks ago before the limit was imposed.
Making things worse – particularly for the law-abiding
At the same time, as someone who sticks to limits no matter how low, I’m aggressively tailgated, hooted, flashed and overtaken when I stick to many 30 limits (Curbridge, for example) let alone artificially low 20 limits like the lower half of Corn Street or Burford High Street. That’s grim enough in a car – it’s terrifying on a motorcycle.
Those overtakes are often opposite junctions, into the face of oncoming traffic and, recently, on the wrong side of a traffic island. It sounds counterintuitive, but limits that are too low are dangerous; they lead to aggressive, frustrated, angry driver behaviour.
Are there downsides to a 20mph limit?
It won’t work
A road has a ‘natural’ speed. That’s why drivers are usually faster – even without a limit – on roads like Buckland Road than they are on, say, Pocock Close. That’s because people match their speed to the way a road looks. The more open, straight and clear – the faster they drive – and that’s OK. There are fewer hazards and, crucially, better sightlines to spot them and space to avoid hazards. Also – and crucially – the less ambiguity about right of way, whether something is a road or a pavement – the faster drivers go.
Ultra-low limits are a distraction
Where a limit considerably lower than the natural speed limit for the road is imposed, drivers need to devote greater levels of concentration to compliance rather than safety. In other words, they spend more time speedo-watching than looking for children running out, cyclists, other hazards and other vehicles.
Don’t believe me? Drive from Bampton, through Witney, down the hill in Burford and back. Get someone to sit with you and watch your speedo and note how often you exceed the limit, even by 1mph. Also, notice how much attention you need to invest in limit compliance because the limits are now too low for the roads.
That’s without even looking at the frequency with which limits change. My nine mile journey from Bampton to Burford goes 30-60-30-60-40-30-40-60-30-60-40-60-30-20. That’s a limit change almost every half mile. It’s driving-by-numbers – like paint-by-numbers, it’s a clumsy facsimile of the real thing.
It writes a cheque the Parish Council can’t cash
A 20 limit leaves the Parish Council creating an expectation and making a promise it can’t deliver on. Once the limits are shown as being ineffective – as, at best, they will be – people will start calling for urban-style calming and cameras.
That means forests of signs, white lines, noise from vehicles over speed bumps and revving engines as people drive over them. We also know from our own village and Brize that OCC doesn’t maintain traffic calming as it should, exacerbating the problem. For cameras, it means a focus on compliance over safety and a significant distraction effect.
So what’s the answer?
Of course, imposing a 20mph gives the impression that we’re doing something. And it’s easy to put signs up and think the problem is solved – but it won’t be. In fact, if anything, it’ll be worse as drivers simply ignore the 20 limit as being too low and drive faster and more aggressively than they might have done before.
There’s actually not much we can do – at least, not with limits or even conventional calming. Given this is dedicated funding from the County Council, not exactly known for their love of the private car, it’s Hobson’s Choice – 20mph limits or nothing.
But if we want to reduce speeds in the village without signage clutter or the need for additional calming and enforcement, it would be worth investigating shared space schemes. If the evidence from continental Europe is correct, these schemes improve the urban environment, improve social cohesion and return streets to the people who live on them. Of course, they don’t hector drivers and don’t allow a minority the gratifying sense of “Ha! We’ve got one over on those nasty drivers now!”, but they do work – with very few downsides.
https://thewest.com.au/lifestyle/motoring/perth-gets-on-board-with-naked-roads-ng-b881287185z (this shows a 13km/h reduction in speed and 49 per cent reduction in casualty crashes)
It seems to me that we have a superb opportunity to improve the village rather than make it uglier, at great expense (even if that’s OCC’s and not our Parish Council’s), with seriously detrimental side effects and to very little purpose.