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Ryan Shorthouse: Reduce speed now

Ryan Shorthouse, Parliamentary researcher and Deputy Editor of Cross Bow, makes the case for a 20mph speed limit in residential areas.

I know, I know: I’m such a bore. I could be speaking about the fate of Northern Rock or which of the candidates will be US President. Big boys politics. But I’m going to write about speed limits. And, especially at 8:47am, speed limits are extremely boring.

Yet, what I am going to argue for- a national 20mph speed limit on all residential streets- could have a profound impact. Please: stay with me. A shocking 3,294 under-16’s in the UK were killed or seriously injured (KSI) in road accidents in 2006. This is too high but child road casualties have decreased dramatically in the past decade, the Government will say. The number of child KSI casualties is much smaller than the 7,525 in 1994. In fact, the Government has met- four years early- its aim for 2010 of a 50% reduction from 1994 figures in child KSI casualties. Accordingly, we should continue as before: a default 30mph speed limit with local authorities installing 20mph zones or Home Zones where they think appropriate.

Well, the picture is not quite as rosy. Remember that fewer children walk to school or play outside than before, parents fearful of exposing them to fast cars and anti-social behaviour. Only one in five children regularly play outside in the streets and spaces where they live.  And the proportion of primary school children walking to school is little more than 50%, a substantial reduction from the early 1990’s when approximately two thirds did. Road deaths have not reduced because motorists have become better drivers, or because local authorities have implemented an array of speed management measures. In 2002, only 30% of local authorities had a clear speed management policy.  The real reason for the decline is that there are simply less children on the streets. IPPR analysed the number of casualties per billion kilometres walked and found that, using this measure, there had been no substantial reduction in the number of casualties over the past 15 years.

So in reality, roads have not got safer. We have a higher rate of child pedestrian deaths than our European neighbours.  And despite all the talk about a decrease, the number of child pedestrians killed actually increased by 20% between 2005 and 2006.

So what will keep our children safer on the streets? Accidents involving child pedestrians and cyclists are seen to fall by 70% in 20mph zones. 5% of people who are hit at 20mph die whereas 45% die when hit at 30mph. The Government knows 20mph zones work. They’ve been urging local authorities to implement them for years. In 2000, they issued a plan for the future of British roads, saying: “we would wish to encourage more local authorities to use the increased powers they now have to introduce 20mph zones”. The Department for Transport in 2006 distributed a circular to all local authorities saying that it “encourages and supports 20mph limits and zones”. And in Ed Ball’s recent Children’s Plan, he said: “we encourage local authorities to create 20mph zones”. Yet, it was recently found that 20% of unitary and county councils do not have any 20mph zones, and of those that do, there were on average only seven zones per authority. Clearly, there’s been too much talk and not enough action.

What the Government should do is introduce a new national speed limit of 20mph on residential roads. Specifically, this would cover all cul-de-sacs, closes, drives and lanes. Main roads through villages or urban areas would stay at 30mph. Of course, local authorities would retain the power to reduce or increase speed limits on particular roads.

People speed because they often fail to see the signs, too busy fiddling with the radio or daydreaming about owning the car in front. They just assume a road is 30mph because it is residential, ignoring the sign saying 20mph 100 metres back. We need people to automatically think 20mph is the default speed. A national speed limit of 20mph, rather than a few zones, would be more effective at reducing speed.

Ed Balls was right to pledge £225 million for the building of 3,500 playgrounds and 30 adventure playgrounds. However, in prioritising the supply of outdoor play equipment, the Children’s Plan failed to truly get to grips with the diminishing demand for outdoor play. Parents don’t feel comfortable letting their children out. If Balls was ambitious, he would have pledged to reduce bureaucracy in the police force, which keeps officers off the streets and prevents them from looking after children. 14% of a police officer’s time is spent on patrol compared to 19.3% on paperwork.  He would also have boosted demand for outdoor play by introducing a new national speed limit of 20mph on all residential roads.

This would benefit children from disadvantaged neighbourhoods the most. They are four times more likely to be KSI casualties than those from affluent neighbourhoods. Dangerous roads and yobs: it is no wonder that the least advantaged in society have retreated indoors. Those from more disadvantaged backgrounds are twice as likely to watch television every day after school. Those from more comfortable backgrounds have parents who can afford to send them to safer spaces: gardens, sports centres, the local tennis club. Outdoor play is so important for physical and mental health, as well as the development of non-cognitive skills that are crucial for success in school and the workplace. We need to take measures to help the most deprived children reclaim outdoor space.

Evidence shows that reduced traffic speeds also increase neighbourliness. If more children are playing on the street, this provides an opportunity for other adults to meet each other. Children really are the glue that binds communities. The San Francisco Street Liveability Study showed that on architectually similar streets, people living on roads with fast moving traffic displayed less neighbourliness than those on quieter streets. Neighbourliness has two main benefits: we gain more friends, thereby increasing our happiness. But it also reduces crime. A 1999 study published in the American Sociological Reviews shows that neighbourliness and everyday movement on streets reduces people’s vulnerability to crime.

Now to pre-empt the critics of this idea. The first criticism is that most people will not abide by the new speed limit and it will be impossible to enforce. It is a Conservative principle to trust individuals: trust them to run hospitals, to teach our children, to look after our streets. Why can we not trust the majority to abide by speed limits too? The second attack will be that it is too expensive to implement. True, local authorities may have avoided implementing lots of 20mph zones for this very reason. Yet, if a national ban was introduced, the capital costs would be much lower than zoning as speed limit signs would not necessarily have to be introduced since most residential streets at the default limit tend not to have them. And it must be remembered that there would be a decline in the treatment of injuries, which costs the NHS thousands. So overall, it would probably save money for the public purse. Third, when I suggested the idea to a friend, she said “No way! That’s walking speed”. I wish it was. Walking would then become a more attractive mode of travelling, which is good for public health, easing road congestion and the environment. Fourth is the belief that this reduced speed limit will substantially slow commuter journeys. Nonsense. People spend a tiny fraction of their journey on residential roads; it is the congested main roads that slow journeys.

This reduction in the speed limit is not the one magic solution for giving more children the outdoor space to play. Nor is it the single catalyst for building stronger communities. I am not that naïve. Other measures are needed: greater adult supervision of public space, teaching children better road sense and a clampdown on gun and knife crime. And of course, a national 20mph speed limit alone will not reduce the UK’s terrible record on child road deaths. Local authorities need to introduce further measures to reduce traffic speed, especially outside schools, through the extension of Home Zones and other traffic claming measures.


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