A report for the Department for Transport has concluded that 20mph zones have made no impact on road safety and that drivers have reduced their speed by just 0.7mph within those zones.

The study has been carried out over four years, in twelve different areas. One of the main findings is that up to 94% of drivers break the speed limit if they usually drove above 24mph before the 20mph zone was introduced.

Revenue raising

Before we jump on the revenue-raising bandwagon, which undoubtedly will be an issue, a close look at the report will perhaps reveal a more political nature to the introduction of 20mph zones.

While there is an argument for road safety, there are three main factors in the decision for a 20mph zone; these are broken down as: transport related, community or politically driven, and health-related. Within these three categories are three weak answers – to reduce the negative impact of cars in urban centres (such as parking space pressures and congestion), a low-cost way to ‘improve’ the lives of residents, and as a way to tackle the perceived quality of the environment.

It would seem that road safety was the intended by-product, rather than the driving force behind implementation.

Speed kills

Twelve areas took part in the study, including parts of Winchester, Liverpool, Brighton, Portsmouth and Middlesbrough, where data could be collected before and after implementation of the 20mph zone. The cost for each zone ranged from £10,000 through to £1.7m and focused solely on zones with no other traffic calming measures such as chicanes, speed humps or directional rights of way.

It was found that typically, drivers ignored the signage, believing that the risk of being caught speeding was minimal, which led to just a 0.7mph reduction in speeding through the zone, with an overall reduction of 0.9mph in the surrounding areas approaching the zone. 47% of drivers admitted to regularly breaking the 20mph limit, that figure increased to 94% of drivers where the road was previously faster than an average of 24mph.

Edmund King, president of the AA, says: “We believe that targeted 20mph limits work best where they’re needed – outside schools or hospitals, or places where other vulnerable road users may be encountered. Speed limits need to reflect the nature of the road, and this report has vindicated the reservations of motorists with regard to 20mph zones”.

Road safety

Within the study, it was found that the biggest contributing factor to an accident was ‘failure to observe’, either as a pedestrian (17%) or motorist (37%), but the lower speeds should mean that a road user has more time to react to an incident – which in theory means a lessened chance of injury.

However, it’s that very reason that could also cause a problem – with road users having more time to react, it seems that complacency is increasing. Further still, and perhaps the biggest takeaway from the study is that there is a small amount of evidence that shows an increase in driver frustration and distraction.

The frustration part is purely from learned behaviour – that can change with time, but the distraction part could be down to the need for constant checking of the speedometer; ensuring that you’re driving below a 20mph limit takes concentration and a certain amount of skill, and with the influx of silent-running electric vehicles, that could be made worse – there will be no engine note as guidance.

With no significant change in accident rates, and no benefit to the environment, can the local authorities justifiably continue to spend the amount of money required to create such folly? It would seem that these 20mph zones are now purely about the perceived perception of a neighbourhood, rather than offering any benefit whatsoever, and in a time when councils are going bust, surely the money is better spent elsewhere?

Of course, there is always a need to back causes that improve road safety, including reduced speed limits where there is proven benefit, but an inappropriate blanket 20mph zone isn’t that. Perhaps we should be thankful that currently, many of these reduced speed zones aren’t enforced with speed cameras as a simple money-making hotspot, but the cynics amongst us would ask how long it will be before that happens?

What do you think of this latest report? Are the findings a revelation? Or just as you’ve suspected all along? Will local authorities view them as a quick way to raise revenue? Let us know in the comments.

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