Why 20's Plenty

Mike Isherwood, Oswestry Town Councillor for Castle Ward

Helping to make our town a safer and more accessible and pleasant place to live and work is one of the most important aims I joined the Town Council with after the elections last May. One simple change would tick all three of those boxes, yet it is being met with, in my opinion, inexplicable resistance from the authorities which make the decisions locally. The change I want to see is to lower the speed limit in residential and town-centre streets to 20 miles per hour from the current 30mph norm. Does that sound extreme? Having read quite a lot of evidence on the subject I don’t believe so. To me it is a no-brainer and I do not understand why the authorities in Shropshire are against a measure which has been shown in many other places to work in reducing death, serious injury and pollution, while increasing well-being and making our shared spaces more child-, cyclist- and disability-friendly rather than the motor-vehicle-dominated rat-runs they all-too-often are at the moment. In my opinion, 20mph is fast enough where people live and should be the default, 30mph the exception based on local need rather than the opposite situation we have today.

The first reason I think the speed limit should be lowered is obviously safety. We know accidents happen. We even have a good idea where they are most likely to happen and the main reasons for them. In that way they are reasonably predictable events. Therefore we also have tried and tested ways of reducing their occurrence and limiting their severity when they do happen. Our roads are full of engineering solutions to the problem of vehicles colliding with other objects, whether other vehicles, buildings, trees or, of course, unprotected pedestrians. Road surfaces are designed to be non-slippery, signage warns us of dangers to look out for and traffic management systems try to keep everyone apart while still moving. But the biggest cause of collision, and the main factor deciding how much damage is done or how serious the injuries are that result, is the speed of the vehicle/s involved. The maximum permitted speed in built-up areas has not changed since the 30mph limit was introduced in 1934. Think how much road design has changed since then, yet the speed limit has been left the same.

But, I hear someone say, speed does not cause accidents. Well, to my mind it as good as does, because speed prevents the accident being avoided by the driver taking evasive action like braking. For example, if a car is travelling at 30mph and a child runs out in front of it 40ft away, even if the driver responds instantly and applies the brakes, the car will hit the child, still travelling at 27mph. If the car had been going at 20mph in the same situation it would stop just in time to avoid hitting the child completely. I have used a child in this example deliberately because I am a parent and the biggest worry I have about letting my children out on their own is crossing roads safely. Bear in mind, also, that the example involved someone obeying the current speed limit. If the driver was illegally going 10mph over the limit they would not have time to even put their foot on the brake before hitting the child and the chances of survival would be slim. But if the limit was 20mph, maybe the speed of those breaking the limit would be dragged down as a result? Those in authority have a duty to ask: Should a child’s moment of carelessness have such a high potential cost, maybe even the death penalty? Should we not alter our behaviour so that a child can live and learn from his or her mistake? And it may not even be carelessness on the part of the child. Studies have shown that due to perceptual and motor-skill development children do not always possess the mental and physical capability to consistently cross roads safely until they are 14 years old. This means that they can’t always process a vehicle travelling at 30mph or time their first step off the pavement correctly so they either do not see the car in the first instance, or have less time to cross in the gap in traffic in the second. So, even when a child is doing her best they are at a huge disadvantage if vehicles are allowed to do 30mph. This problem is remedied almost completely by lowering the speed to 20mph. This is the speed that studies have shown a 10 year old can safely cross roads consistently. Wouldn’t that be nice? Plus, it is not only children who are effectively discriminated against in favour of the convenience of drivers. Anyone who needs extra time to cross roads for whatever reason or who have visual and hearing impairments would benefit enormously from slower traffic, no longer fearing being beeped at by impatient drivers outraged by having their right to do 30mph denied by someone daring to cross their path, not to mention cyclists. In areas which have adopted 20mph as the default speed in residential areas walking and cycling have both increased.

This is the second reason I would support a 20mph limit; health and wellbeing. Slowing motor vehicles down a bit would allow our street to be shared more equally between all those who need to use them. I am not trying to demonise the majority of drivers who are careful and responsible, but the current rules make it impossible for a large percentage of the population to share our streets with confidence, and that means the system is discriminatory. At the moment motor-vehicles are the dominant users of nearly all our public highways, whether motorways, country lanes or town-centre high streets. In residential areas, what is the justification for allowing vehicles to travel faster than the children who live there can safely cross roads? People are currently put off from walking and cycling, or letting their kids walk and cycle, due to the danger posed by vehicle speeds. Why have we allowed this situation to develop? I suppose that in the past there were simply fewer cars on the road. Pedestrians and cyclists were not so outnumbered and therefore the balance was fairer. All of us over a certain age will remember playing in the street and only occasionally having to shout a warning of ‘car!’ to our mates before letting it past and then resuming the game. Now it would be virtually impossible to play on most streets due to the volume of traffic. But there is no natural reason to suppose that vehicles should take priority. Where 20mph limits have been introduced, the average speed of traffic is lower and everybody gets a fairer share of the space. Surely we all have a right to move around our streets free from intimidation whether in a car or not? Vulnerable road users should not be put at risk for the convenience of drivers and life and health should not be sacrificed for faster mobility. I’m not saying we’d all be able to play cricket in the streets if cars could only go at 20mph, but walking and cycling would become much safer activities (as would driving) and so more of us would leave the car at home more often. The increase in physical activity as a result would keep us fitter both physically and mentally. We might even feel a better sense of place and community from re-engaging with our surroundings, or chatting to our neighbours.

My third reason for finding a 20mph speed limit attractive is the reduction in air pollution. Accelerating to 30mph uses 2 ¼ times the fuel it takes to accelerate to 20mph. Driving through towns and residential areas means constantly speeding up and slowing down due to parked cars, junctions, traffic lights and roundabouts, so limiting our top speed to 20mph would save fuel, save us all money and, importantly, keep our air cleaner. This would benefit every one of us. Studies suggest that areas which have introduced the 20mph limit have seen air pollution lowered by 8%. This may sound modest but I know which air I’d rather breathe! This would not only help to make Oswestry a more sustainable town, but for those who have already upgraded their vehicle to an electric one, think how much further they might travel on a single charge if the limit in town was 20mph.

I’ve heard a few arguments for leaving the limit at 30mph and some have, frankly, baffled me. One person said that it would be ignored. Put a sign up and people will ignore it, they said. Yet we put signs up for the 30mph areas and most people slow down for those. And anyway, saying people might ignore something does not mean it isn’t the right thing to do. The same sort of argument is made before every improvement in safety standards. People said compulsory wearing of seat-belts was a step too far, an infringement of civil liberty and would be ignored anyway. Where are those people now? Think how many lives have been saved since seat-belts were introduced. We all simply adjusted and then moved on but with fewer avoidable deaths and serious injuries than before. Another objector said that they’d heard 20mph increases pollution by making cars use more fuel for all the slowing down. But this, I believe was a confusion with traffic-calming measures such as speed bumps. There is evidence to show that those cause extra pollution because drivers speed up and slow down between them, burning more fuel. But a blanket 20mph limit could not possibly cause more pollution because people would be speeding up and slowing down less than in a 30mph zone. Our schools already have protective 20mph zones around them, doesn’t that solve the problem? Not really because they are entirely inadequate. Apart from the fact that they only seek to solve one part of the problem, children’s safety, ignoring all the other reasons for 20mph limits stated above, they are too small to be of use. My children and I live outside of their school’s 20 zone so we have quite a way to walk before getting to it. Also many people don’t notice that they have driven into a different speed limit because there is no tangible difference. If you miss the sign, that’s that, everything looks the same so there is nothing to prompt you to slow down. If 20mph was the default speed limit across residential areas everybody would know they were in one, just like we do now with 30mph, and would not have to rely on noticing a sign in an already cluttered street-scene. But by far the most common objection I’ve heard is that, obviously, journeys will take a lot longer if you have to drive slower. Well, that sounds quite plausible at first reading, but, given a little thought, does it necessarily ring true? It is certain that, driving in a straight line from point A to point B, 2 miles away, at 30mph will take 4 minutes (ignoring acceleration and braking times) and at 20mph the same journey would take 6 minutes. Leaving aside my own opinion that the extra 2 minutes is neither here nor there, the fact is that journeys in residential areas and town-centres are not straight lines and constant speeds. The major factor in determining a journey time in such areas is not the maximum speed achieved but actually how often and for how long a vehicle is stationary at obstructions like traffic lights and junctions. And guess what? We wait longer at traffic lights and junctions when we drive around faster! This is because too many of us arrive at them too quickly and have to form a longer queue as we wait to pass through the bottle-neck. If we all slowed down then there would be more chance that the queue had started moving by the time we got there and so the time spent sitting in it would be shorter. I actually experience this quite often and I’m sure I’m not the only one; you see up ahead a queue at the lights and think, if I slow down a bit now the lights might change and the cars will start to move and I may not have to stop. Sometimes it works and by approaching more leisurely you end up having a smoother journey and don’t have to sit in a queue wasting fuel. So driving at 20mph will not always add time to your journey, unless the roads are so clear that you would not have had to stop at any junctions and you are so lucky that all the lights would have been green had you been going 30mph. But also, think how much easier it would be to get out at junctions if the approaching traffic was going slower. The gap needed would be significantly smaller and so we would all be on our way without having to take a risk and just go for it as we all sometimes end up doing. My personal feeling is that driving would be a less stressful experience all-round if we were doing it at a gentler pace and we might arrive at our destinations more relaxed rather than seething because of how long we’d sat at lights and queued at junctions and that idiot who pulled out in front of us and we’d had to slam on the brakes. All these things would simply happen less frequently and with less severity if we were driving at a maximum of 20mph.

Alright; I’ve had my say. But I still hear some of you asking, aren’t we just being a bit ‘nanny-state-ish’ here? Surely all that’s needed is a bit of common sense? Why should I have to drive around at 20mph just because it’s a bit safer; you can’t completely eliminate risk from life. And it’s not my fault if there’s a queue at the lights. The air’s not that bad in Oswestry and I’d like to get to work in the least time possible, thanks. Well, if the above has not convinced you that the gains would be worth the cost, please bear in mind that I am not the only person calling for this change to be made. The World Health Organisation endorses a 30 kilometres per hour (roughly 20mph) in residential areas. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) does, too. As does Public Health England, Directors of Public Health, the Department for Transport Manual for Streets and Sport England, not to mention the many countries and local authorities which have already brought in the 20mph limit. In fact, around 25% of the UK population already live in areas with 20mph speed limits. It may soon be the new normal. For those who think that simply encouraging people to use common sense and the Highway Code will achieve the same ends, I say that I would never argue against both those things but the rules do need to be appropriate and up to date. Our speed limits have not been altered in decades and what may have been good enough in 1934 when there was a tiny fraction of the number of vehicles on the road as there is today could at least be looked at again, but using evidence as a guide to deciding if there is a case for change. I’m sure we’d all agree it would be crazy to apply a 70mph speed limit in towns and residential areas, but should it be as low as 20? I believe that, based on the evidence I have presented here, and the successful demonstrations where the policy has already been working, this would be a sensible and highly beneficial measure which would make us all safer and healthier, less stressed and more co-operative. It recognises the changes which have taken place in terms of traffic volumes and acknowledges everybody’s rights to equal access. We would have fewer accidents resulting in less damage to vehicles and therefore cheaper insurance. Fewer people would suffer serious injuries or even death, just for a badly-timed step off the kerb. Our air would be cleaner and the streets would again belong to us all equally, not stolen from pedestrians and cyclists to feed the greed of speed. According to Public Health England, Shropshire is ‘...significantly worse than the English average on those killed and seriously injured on roads’. Some of that is probably down to our predominant road type, being a rural area. There is little we can do about that, but what we can do is make the places where we live safer and better, by making one relatively small change to our behaviour which is low-cost (nothing needs to change but the road-signs), proven to be popular where introduced, and the morally responsible thing to do. Because a community that permits 30mph on residential streets can never be child-friendly and will always deter physical activity. I hope that 2018 is the year Shropshire Council finally takes this proposal seriously and starts listening to the growing calls for safer streets.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your views on this subject, or any other issue related to our town and people. My email address is mike.isherwood@tutanota.com so please get in touch and for those of you who live in the Castle ward of Oswestry, don’t forget I’m one of your Town Councillors and you can contact me if you see any problems I may be able to help with. For more information on the campaign for wide-area 20mph speed limits visit www.20splenty.org and lastly, I wish everyone in Oswestry a happy and healthy new year.

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Further reading

An overview of Green Party support for 20's Plenty in Shrewsbury and North Shropshire can be found here.