The real power of 20mph limits
At the end of September, Brake released a new Go20 research report, which called on the Government to cut the red tape surrounding 20 mph limits so that lcoal councils could impliment their areas in going 20. Here the author of that report, Dr Tom Fisher, blogs about how social change is important to creating a safer environment for all road users.
Brake recently released the results of a major research project, GO 20: Towards changing the default urban limit to 20mph . The call of this work is, essentially, to facilitate the change of most of the roads in built-up areas from 30mph to 20mph, through the use of signs-only limits (rather than physical traffic calming). The research reviewed the literature, and also involved a Freedom of Information request from most of the councils in Great Britain.
There are clear benefits of 20mph limits, explored in the research, not only for road safety but more broadly for public health and the well-being of communities. But I want to go further: to achieve this change would be a shift in social norms, and help bridge the gap between the different "tribes" of road users.
There was a fact that was accepted by councils whether they'd adopted 20mph widespread limits or not: 20mph limits are capable of reducing average speeds, which reduces crashes and saves lives. Looking at the worst-case scenario, we're looking at a reduction of 1 or 2 mph on our streets. This sounds small, but seeing as how this means a 6-12% reduction in crashes, that's a significant effect on the safety of our roads. If this were the sole benefit of 20mph limits, I have no doubt we would want to introduce those limits.
Yet, what really impressed me during the research, is how that those councils who have introduced 20mph limits have their eyes on the bigger picture. The public health argument is a powerful one: by encouraging walking and cycling, we can contribute to saving the 37,000 lives a year if everyone took the recommended amount of moderate exercise. Risk, or rather the perception of risk, is a major factor in putting people off active travel, and speed is one of the prime factors in that risk. So, achieving this modal shift – moving people from cars to foot and bike – forms a virtuous circle: reduce the risk and we encourage more people in active travel; that in turn reduces the number of cars on the road which reduces the risk further.
Yet the most exciting part of this is through achieving genuine social change, making for happier and more sociable places where people live and work. It's not just that speeding is a serious concern to people, or that people know their neighbours less in areas with heavy traffic. Rather, it is how 20mph limits will make our communities safer. 20mph limits are ultimately about changing social norms: the understanding that drivers have of the road and other road users. That can only be achieved if drivers began to understand the impact that their choice of speed has on other road users and communities. This not only means slower speeds. It means a bridging of the gap between the car driver and other road users. Safer, healthier, and more social communities are the result.