A Brief Look at the History and Development of 20mph Speed Limits in Wales
In September, Wales made a bold step towards a safer and more sustainable future by becoming the first nation in the UK to introduce a default 20mph speed limit in residential areas. This marked a significant shift in road safety policy, from treating the symptoms to tackling the root cause of much road danger: speeding motor vehicles. The aim was to improve safety for vulnerable road users, and create more pleasant and livable communities.
The Roots of Change
The impetus for the 20mph legislation stemmed from a growing recognition of the need to prioritise road safety, particularly in areas where pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists share the road. Research has consistently shown that lower speed limits can significantly reduce the severity of collisions.
This led to the setting up of a 20mph task force which investigated the road safety and community benefits of slower speeds in built up areas. Its report, published in July 2020, supported the implementation of 20mph in restricted (built up) areas. On the same day, the Senedd debated and supported a motion which:
“Supports the Welsh Government’s intention to commence consultation on the proposed making of an order by statutory instrument (which will require approval by a resolution of the Senedd) reducing the general speed limit for restricted roads to 20 mph”
The following year, both Labour and Plaid Cymru embedded the implementation of 20mph in their manifestos. Following the election it then became enshrined into the new Programme for Government.
The initial list of three core objectives were set out in the ‘Welsh 20mph Task Force Group Final Report’:
- Reduce injury and death.
- Encourage a change in travel behaviour.
- Reduce negative effects of vehicle use on the wider environment.
The ultimate aim is to create a safer, more sustainable environment for all road users in Wales.
Pilot Schemes and the Road to Implementation
Before rolling out the 20mph speed limit nationwide, the Welsh Government conducted a series of pilots in eight areas. These provided valuable insights into the potential impact of the lower speed limit, allowing for adjustments to enforcement strategies and community engagement approaches.
They yielded positive results, with a significant reduction in average speeds and a decrease in both the number and severity of collisions. These findings reinforced the Welsh Government’s decision to implement the 20mph speed limit on a national scale.
In July 2022, the Senedd approved the legislation and the new speed limit came into effect on 17th September 2023. The implementation process involved extensive signage, public awareness campaigns, and engagement with local communities to ensure a smooth transition.
Challenges and Ongoing Adaptations
Despite the positive outcomes of the pilot schemes showing clear road safety benefits, the implementation of the 20mph speed limit has not been without its challenges. Despite being early advocates of the proposals, the Welsh Conservatives cynically embarked on a negative campaign against the new legislation. This resulted in the biggest petition ever in the history of the Senedd (due to suspected gaming of the numbers) and an unsuccessful vote of no confidence in the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, Lee Waters. Even the Prime Minister waded into the debate.
There have also been limited protests by drivers who have expressed concerns about potential delays and increased journey times, whilst others have questioned the need for such a low speed limit in certain areas.
The Welsh Government has acknowledged these concerns and has adopted a flexible approach to implementation, which allows local authorities to keep 30mph on certain roads. It has also emphasised the importance of education and engagement, giving additional funding to the Go Safe Partnership to increase compliance with the new speed limits.
Measuring Success and the Road Ahead
The First Phase Monitoring Report on the eight pilot areas was published in March 2023. It was largely positive in relation to speed reduction and attitudes to active travel. Other Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) like CO2 emissions, pedestrian/cyclist casualty rates and public attitude changes were not evaluated due to short timescales and the limited geography of the pilot areas.
Transport for Wales (TfW) will now evaluate the full roll out of the 20mph speed limit and its impact on road safety, traffic flow, and community well-being through its Monitoring Framework Document. This will last for five years. Initial data suggests that the new speed limit is having a positive effect, with compliance with the new limits high.
The introduction of the 20mph speed limit in Wales represents a bold step towards a safer and more sustainable future for the nation’s roads. While challenges remain, the early indications are positive, with growing compliance and improvements in road safety for vulnerable road users. As changes bed in and the long-term effects are measured, Wales has the potential to serve as a model for other nations. This is an important move for those seeking to prioritise road safety, encourage active travel and reduce negative environmental and social impacts on communities.
Photo credit: Shutterstock / Nick Beer
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