Department for Transport (DfT) data has shown that 80% of drivers are turning a blind eye to the 20mph speed limit. According to official figures, the majority of these motorists are travelling at 21-25mph, with 15% exceeding 30mph and 1% clocked at over 40mph.

The DfT’s data was sourced from nine 20mph areas featuring free-flow conditions and no traffic-calming measures. This is not typical of many 20mph-limited areas across the country. Still, the figures make for sobering reading, especially when compared to road charity Brake’s recent poll, which stated only 52% of drivers were breaking the 20mph limit.

Testing ‘the limit’ of drivers

The often controversial speed limit was introduced in 1991, with 250 areas included across UK roads by the end of decade. In 1999, local highway authorities were allowed to roll out the 20mph limit without needing to apply for permission from central government, which saw an explosion of the limit in many cities and towns. Most recently, some authorities have set 20mph as the standard limit for residential streets, including in Warrington, Hackney and Oxford.

It’s this seemingly indiscriminate approach to 20mph deployment that some motoring groups believe may be causing the problem. The RAC Foundation’s Edmund King explained to The Times newspaper:

“These statistics indicate that blanket 20mph speed limits aren’t particularly effective. Where they are targeted, like outside schools these lower limits work because people can see the point of them. But if 20mph limits are simply imposed over a whole area, people just don’t believe in them and it’s no surprise they then fail to comply.”

The wrong end of the stick?

Others though argue that the goal of the limit isn’t to get motorists driving under 20mph. The AA’s Luke Bosdet told the Daily Telegraph,

“The target is to get people driving below 30mph in these areas. That’s what the 20mph limit is clearly for, and in that sense as far as we’re concerned it’s working.”

He does concede though that how the 20mph limit is rolled out can create issues, arguing that “the problem is a knee-jerk reaction to have these zones everywhere. If local residents want them, they should get them, but the big question is whether they are being consulted. If they’re not being consulted you’re not going to get adherence.”

Adherence is not only a problem for residents or motorists, but law enforcement as well. For instance, in Brighton and Hove the local authority introduced a far-reaching 20mph limit in many areas of the city in 2013. However, Sussex Police went on the record stating that it would not allocate any extra resources to tracking down offending drivers, instead believing that “it’s important that roads are carefully designed to ensure that drivers habitually self-enforce when it comes to speed limits.”

Exception, not the rule

The Sussex Police are the exception to the rule; motorists should expect 20mph limits to remain in place and be enforced. Even after its own startling findings, the DfT still backs the widespread use of the limit:

“Research shows that 20mph zones in the right areas can save lives and we have made it easier for councils to introduce them. It is for councils to set speed limits in their area and police to decide how best to enforce them.”

Are 20 mph limits essential to the safety of our busy streets? Or are local authorities simply rolling them out to boost their budgets through fines? Let us know your views below.

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