Why 20 mph in Wales matters

20mph sign. Shutterstock.
Photo: Shutterstock
Can’t wait for one of the most exciting, pioneering, nationwide shifts ever towards happier and safer road conditions? Cycling UK can’t either, so we’re counting down to 17 September 2023. Cherry Allan explains why

17 September 2023 is the day when the default national 30 mph speed limit for ‘restricted roads’ will drop to 20 mph across Wales.

These are the kind of streets, usually in residential and/or built-up areas, where people are most likely to walk, wheel or cycle (or want to walk, wheel or cycle, but feel too unsafe) and children play (or want to play, but their parents or guardians are reluctant to let them).

It’ll also be the day that heralds an estimated £92m saving in the first year alone from fewer road deaths and injuries, less demand on A&E and, over the following 10 years, up to 100 lives spared and 20,000 fewer casualties.

Ideally, these numbers should be enough to convince anyone that this move, with a direct estimated cost of about £32.5m (2022-27), is life changing for Wales and, further, that it would be equally life changing for other UK nations should they do the same.

If these numbers aren’t convincing enough, though, there’s more evidence coming up.

Default means default

But first I must take issue with anyone who insists on calling this a ‘blanket’ limit. It’s not.

It’s already possible for local authorities to talk to their communities about making exceptions for certain roads and bringing them in through traffic orders.

Government guidance says, however, that they must first ask themselves question A: “Are there significant numbers (or potential numbers, if speeds were lower) of pedestrians and cyclists travelling along or across the road?”

If ‘no’, a 30 mph speed limit exception may be appropriate.

If ‘yes’, question B follows: “… are the pedestrians and cyclists mixing with motor traffic?”

A ‘yes’ to that means 20 mph will be appropriate “… unless the robust and evidenced application of local factors indicates otherwise”.

Communities and children

So, anyone against 20 mph on certain restricted roads can indeed have their say. But they’re the people who will now have to fight their corner for an exception.

It’s been communities desperate for safer streets who’ve have had to do much of the speed limit fighting to date, some so desperate that they’ve deployed small children with speed guns to make their point.

While on the subject of speed and children who, when crossing roads may be unable to detect vehicles approaching at speeds in excess of 20 mph, it’s worth noting that a 2020 survey in Wales found that the adults most concerned about vehicles driving too fast generally were, in particular, those with children under 16 in their households – a whole 73% of them.

If anyone’s going to welcome 20 mph by default, then, it’ll be parents, grandparents and anyone who wants to protect our vulnerable young – and shouldn’t that be all of us?

The homework

This isn’t a surprise or fanciful change in the law, and the Welsh Government has done its homework. It’s been working on it with local authorities and road safety experts for four years, plus liaising with the police and GoSafe (Wales’s Road Casualty Reduction Partnership) over enforcement and educating motorists.

It’s also trialled 20 mph in eight areas, learnt from it and documented ‘large positive’ changes in compliance, speed and, based on school-run journeys, attitudes to active travel use.

On top of this, the Government commissioned a survey to assess public attitudes. As a result, it has every reason to suppose that most adults in Wales are in favour of the change in residential communities (60%). Objectors may be vocal but, by this account at least, can’t claim to be voice of the people.

The Government has also assembled evidence on the impact of 20 mph limits elsewhere. It cites, for instance, Spain’s experience of reducing the limit on most roads to 30km/h in 2019, resulting in 34% fewer urban road fatalities among cyclists and 24% among pedestrians.

These findings are on a par with those from London, where key routes with 20 mph limits witnessed a 36% drop in collisions involving a vulnerable road user. Overall, fatal collisions fell by 25%.

Edinburgh’s city-wide 20 mph network is another case in point. Before and after monitoring showed a “substantial reduction in annual numbers of road traffic collisions and casualties”.

Also, people who cycled and walked in Edinburgh chose to do so more frequently because they felt safer, while the proportion of residents cycling at least once a week has gradually increased.

According to a recent report on the evidence behind 20 mph limits in Europe, though, studies vary in quality. Schemes vary too – those accompanied by ‘self-enforcing’ physical measures (such as humps), rather than being ‘sign only’, they say, seem to make more difference.

While Wales has no plans to include traffic calming as part of the change to speed limits, it might introduce ‘softer’ measures; buffer speed limits, removing the centre line, narrowing the carriageway visually and using planting, for example.

In any case, on the basis of the evidence scoured in the above-mentioned report, the authors concluded that, whatever the scheme: “Lower urban speeds are important to delivering casualty reductions and associated objectives such as increasing active travel.”

I think we will look back at this […] in years to come and we'll be proud of the decision we’ve made, as the statistics will do in Wales what they’ve done everywhere else: save lives, cut noise, improve levels of active travel and strengthen our communities

Lee Waters, MS, deputy minister for climate change, Senedd 28 June 2023

And now for the economy and the value of time

A colossal – and highly contentious – contributor to routine calculations on how much a measure may or may not hit the economy is costing lost or saved minutes of ‘cumulated’ journey times (that is, all of them, en masse).

In this case, and with “significant uncertainty”, the model came up with a very wide-raging minus of £2.7-£8.9bn over 30 years, the ‘central estimate’ being £6.4bn. This not only includes commuting and business travel, but leisure too.

Alarmed? Don’t be.

As the explanatory memorandum citing these figures asks readers to note: “There will likely be some trade-off between journey times effects and the other benefits from the policy as slower vehicle speeds are key to delivering safety benefits which then unlock the further benefits of increased active travel, improved communities and environment.”


The memorandum also rightly points out that there’s an “active professional debate” surrounding this time-valuing approach anyway.

But, perhaps most revealingly, the modelling exercise found “a time penalty of just over 1 minute per person per day or slightly less than 1 minute per trip”.

Not much sacrifice, I’d say, for saving up to 10 lives a year for the next decade.

In fact, Wales can’t afford not to do this. And the same goes for other countries in the UK.

Nothing outlandish happening here

Moreover, the Government isn’t doing anything outlandish in the general scheme of things. For one thing, it’s aspiring to meet the aims of article 11 of the Stockholm Declaration on speed management, agreed at the third Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety.

For another, the change is in keeping with long-term thinking on road safety. ‘Safe speeds’ are one of the five pillars of the ‘safe system’ which has, over many years, grown into the guiding light for road safety decision-makers seeking (as they should seek) ‘Vision Zero’, a road traffic system free from death and serious injury.

The legislation will also help alleviate an inequitable situation that anyone with any compassion would surely want to tackle: cyclists and pedestrians throughout Britain have long been over-represented in road casualty statistics, but do very little harm to others.

On top of that, speed-related ‘contributory factors’ regularly feature in serious or fatal crashes. Scarcely surprising: the faster a motor vehicle goes, the harder it is to brake in time and the more severe any injuries it inflicts are likely to be.

There’s a debate?

Believe it or not, there is.

Just under 22,000 people (about 0.7% of the population of Wales), signed a petition to stop the change, leading to a debate in the Senedd on 28 June.

The petition, which closed early so that it could be debated before 17 September, claimed the decision wasn’t representative of “broader public opinion”. It also feared road rage, slower commutes for some, and suggested it was just a way of making money from fining people caught speeding “when they are travelling at a safe speed”.

The changes, of course, are enshrined in law, so the petition couldn’t stop them, despite its demanding title.

Yet the debate certainly emphasised how crucial good communications are, and how sensible it was to conduct pilot schemes. Inevitably, trials didn’t all go swimmingly, so gave the Government the chance to amend the criteria accordingly.

And, thanks to Mike Hedges MS, we also learnt of a curious form of reverse nimbyism. A constituent of his, he said, wanted the speed reduced on the street where he lived, but not elsewhere. Oh dear.

The debate also highlighted how stirred up some people persist in being over the regularly (and maybe wilfully) misunderstood matter of exceptions. Even certain members of the Senedd, it appears, are not immune to the misuse of the term “blanket”.

Accusations of being “anti-car”, “anti-economy” and “anti-growth” were flung around too.

But, thankfully, the law’s master champion, Lee Waters MS, deputy minister for climate change, stepped forward. On democracy and mandate, the minister referred to two winning, cross-party votes in Parliament, plus a manifesto commitment from his party which, having won the election, formed the Government.

On exemptions, he noted that the guidance, developed with representatives including small business, haulage, police and local government, is evidence based and gives highway authorities the “flexibility to set local speed limits that are right for individual roads”. He also said that he had “written to local authorities on more than one occasion to urge them to apply common sense”.

On being anti-car, anti-economy and anti-growth, he noted that Conservative-controlled Cornwall County Council are introducing “a standard 20 mph for rural and urban areas where they are built up, in residential areas”.

And he confined himself to one compelling statistic: “In the distance it takes for a car travelling at 20 mph to stop, a car travelling at 30 mph will still be moving at 24 mph in the same distance. And we know that someone is five times more likely to be killed if they're hit at 30 mph than they are at 20 mph.”

Enough said, surely.