Government red tape puts brakes on 20mph limits

Wednesday 30 September 2015

Brake, the road safety charity

Stronger national leadership needed to unlock full potential, report finds

A research report released today (30 September 2015) by Brake, the road safety charity, has called for the removal of unnecessary barriers faced by local councils in implementing 20mph speed limits to deliver safer walking and cycling. The report finds that moving to 20mph limits across built up areas would deliver significant safety benefits, especially for pedestrians and cyclists, and suggests red tape and a lack of strong national government leadership is at fault for the current UK postcode lottery when it comes to reaping the benefits of lower traffic speeds in communities.

A freedom of information request submitted by Brake to all 206 local traffic authorities in Great Britain regarding their decisions to implement 20mph limits or not identified some key stumbling blocks, including:

  • Cost. With local authority budgets under severe pressure, many councils view the cost of introducing 20mph limits as prohibitive, with much of the costs (75% in one case) spent on installing repeater signs in line with current regulation. Although many councils recognise this cost is likely to be outweighed in the long run by crash prevention, it is enough to discourage some councils. The government could reduce these costs by amending signage regulation.
  • Central government guidance. The government’s guidance on introducing 20mph limits states trouble-free compliance is likely on roads where average traffic speeds are already 24mph or below [1]. This has been misinterpreted by some councils as meaning 20mph limits should not be introduced on roads with higher average speeds, when doing so has been shown to achieve greater speed reductions. Brake argues the government can show stronger leadership and remove red tape by revising guidance to be less prohibitive.

With 20mph increasingly the norm in urban areas across the UK, Brake advocates making this the national default urban speed limit, alongside its 16 GO 20 coalition partners. This would avoid problems currently experienced by local authorities by only requiring them to spend money signing exceptional roads that are appropriate to remain at 30mph or higher. This would also be easier for drivers to understand and would likely increase compliance and speed reduction.

However, short of changing the urban default, Brake is recommending that major progress could be made in making walking and cycling safer, and big savings achieved, by relaxing regulations on repeater signs on 20mph roads and revising government guidance on setting local speed limits.

Small margins make a big difference

Reaffirming the wide-ranging benefits of 20mph limits, the report found that signs-only 20mph speed limits can be expected to achieve, as a minimum, a 1mph reduction of average traffic speeds, leading to a 6% reduction in collisions. Where limits are backed up with public awareness and enforcement campaigns, speed reductions could be as much as 4mph, reducing collisions by almost a quarter (24%). The report suggests this improvement in safety is likely to have a positive impact on walking and cycling levels, with significant health and environmental benefits.

Dr Tom Fisher, research manager for Brake, said: “At a time when local authority budgets are being slashed by central government, that government has a duty to do what it can to enable those authorities to spend that cash as efficiently as possible. However, when it comes to making streets in their communities safer, the government is tying the hands of cash-strapped councils with out-dated and unnecessary regulation.

“20mph limits are an effective and globally-recognised solution to unacceptably dangerous roads in our cities, towns, and villages. Ultimately, we would like to see 20mph become the default urban speed limit in the UK. In the meantime, the government can remove red tape and show stronger leadership by providing clearer and more positive guidance, and by doing away with the requirement for costly repeater signs.”

About Brake’s GO 20 campaign

Brake is part of a broad coalition of organisations calling for more local authorities to adopt widespread 20mph limits, and for the government to make 20mph the national urban default, through its GO 20 campaignTweet us: @Brakecharity, hashtag #GO20.

Why GO 20?

  • Fewer casualties: at 20, drivers have far more time to react in an emergency. Studies show when 20 limits replace 30, there are fewer casualties among pedestrians and cyclists [2].
  • More walking and cycling: danger from traffic is a major barrier in enabling more people to walk and cycle. Town and city-wide 20 limits have resulted in more people walking and cycling [3].
  • Healthier, happier people: More walking and cycling means healthier people, and more enjoyable outdoors activity for kids and adults. It helps communities interact and be communities.
  • Less pollution: If more people can switch their commute or school run to foot or bike, it means less polluting traffic.
  • Lower costs: Poor health from inactivity costs society dearly [4]. Road casualties cost even more, due to the suffering and burden on health and emergency services [5]. Preventing casualties and improving health means GOing 20 pays for itself many times over [6]. It also helps people save money by choosing the cheapest ways to get about: foot and bike.

Notes for editors

About the report

GO 20: Towards changing the default urban speed limit to 20mph was produced by Brake, the road safety charity, in autumn 2015, with kind sponsorship from Bridgestone. The report is divided into two sections: a literature review exploring current evidence on 20mph limits and their effects, and results of a freedom of information request to local authorities exploring their implementation and experiences of 20mph limits. 122 of 206 local authorities in Great Britain provided a response. Read the full report.


Brake is a national road safety charity that exists to stop the needless deaths and serious injuries that happen on roads every day, make streets and communities safer for everyone, and care for families bereaved and injured in road crashes. Brake promotes road safety awareness, safe and sustainable road use, and effective road safety policies. We do this through national campaignscommunity education, services for road safety professionals and employers, and by coordinating the UK's flagship road safety event every November, Road Safety Week. Brake is a national, government-funded provider of support to families and individuals devastated by road death and serious injury, including through a helpline and support packs.

Brake was founded in the UK in 1995, and now has domestic operations in the UK and New Zealand, and works globally to promote action on road safety.

Follow Brake on TwitterFacebook, or The Brake Blog.

Road crashes are not accidents; they are devastating and preventable events, not chance mishaps. Calling them accidents undermines work to make roads safer, and can cause insult to families whose lives have been torn apart by needless casualties.

End notes

[1] Department for Transport circular 01/2013: setting local speed limits, Department for Transport, 2013

[2] For example, 20mph speed reduction initiative, Scottish Executive Central Research Unit, 2001;  20mph Speed Limit Pilots Evaluation Report, Warrington Borough Council, 2010

[3] Where widespread 20 limits have been introduced levels of walking and cycling increased by 20% Citywide Rollout of 20mph speed limits, Bristol City Council Cabinet, 2012

[4] The annual costs of physical inactivity in England are estimated at £8.2 billion. At least five a week - evidence on the impact of physical activity and its relationship to health - a report from the Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health, 2004

[5] Road casualties in Britain cost an estimated £34.8billion in 2011, due to the burden on health and emergency services, criminal justice costs, insurance payouts, and human costs. Reported road casualties Great Britain annual reports 2011, Department for Transport, 2012

[6] In Bristol, 20mph resulted in a massive return on investment because of cost savings to the health service through increased physical activity. They used the World Health Organisation’s Health Economic Assessment Tool to estimate the changes in costs. They found for every £1 spent they saw a return of £24.72 through increased walking and £7.47 through increased in cycling. Citywide Rollout of 20mph speed limits, Bristol City Council Cabinet, 2012.  Reducing speeds in urban environments reduces casualties. For each 1mph speed reduction, casualties decrease by 5%, the effects of drivers’ speed on the frequency of road accidents, Transport Research Laboratory, 2000, fewer crashes reduces the burden on the NHS, emergency services and local economy. Each death on roads costs £1.7 million and each serious injury costs £190,000, Reported road casualties Great Britain 2011, Department for Transport, 2012

Tags: 20mph research speed Go 20 cycling government walk campaign