The 20mph zone is sucking the joy out of driving

·7 min read
Wherever you go in Britain, the 20mph zone is increasingly becoming a part of motoring life
Wherever you go in Britain, the 20mph zone is increasingly becoming a part of motoring life

As is often the case, seven times British Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton, got there first. Earlier this month the 37-year-old put his finger on a subject that is troubling many a motorist – confessing in an interview that nowadays he detests driving on ordinary roads.

Despite being comfortable hurtling around a race track at 200mph, and having amassed a private car collection which includes a £2m McLaren P1 and a £1m Ferrari LeFerrari, Hamilton told a journalist from the magazine Vanity Fair that, away from the race track, increasingly he avoids driving altogether due to the pressure on motorists. “I think I just find it stressful,” Hamilton admitted.

He speaks for many drivers trying to navigate an increasingly complex web of rules and restrictions – and especially a network of 20mph zones which are now spreading from cities out across the country.

Gone are the days of Toad of Toad Hall careering down rural roads with reckless abandon. Surrey County Council, for example, has just announced that it plans to implement new 20mph and 30mph restrictions across an 80-square-mile swathe of countryside south of the A25 between Guildford and Dorking, where currently many single-carriageway rural roads are covered by a blanket 60mph speed limit which residents argue is being abused by antisocial drivers. Poop. Poop.

Wherever you go in Britain, the 20mph zone (which was first introduced in residential areas in 1991) is increasingly becoming a part of motoring life and critics say it is slowly sapping the joy from driving on the open road.

Hamilton recently said that away from the race track, he avoids driving altogether due to the pressure on motorists - JURE MAKOVEC
Hamilton recently said that away from the race track, he avoids driving altogether due to the pressure on motorists - JURE MAKOVEC

Even cyclists may soon be beholden to the new rules if Transport Secretary Grant Shapps gets his way. He said this week that he would like to see a 20mph speed limit imposed on cyclists, forcing them to possess number plates and insurance to take to the road.

Luke Bosdet, a spokesman for the AA, argues the over-proliferation of 20mph zones is a blunt tool that will only serve to confuse drivers. “Speed limits work in places where they make sense to drivers, where there is a particular hazard that requires them to slow down,” he says. “The problem is 20mph zones pop up all over the place and they’ve lost their meaning.”

There have also been numerous irate letters sent in by Telegraph readers on a subject which one correspondent describes as “a hidden agenda to stop us driving”. Another reader living in the Tyne and Wear village of Seaton Burn sent in a recent photograph of a newly erected 20mph sign under which, presumably due to an administrative fault, read a message left only as “for a reason”. It seems that, increasingly, councils feel they do not need to provide any justification for implementing 20mph restrictions.

A reader living in the Tyne and Wear village of Seaton Burn sent in this photo of a newly erected 20mph sign
A reader living in the Tyne and Wear village of Seaton Burn sent in this photo of a newly erected 20mph sign

Critics argue that 20mph zones are indiscriminate, economically costly, increase traffic and offer no positive impact on road safety. Brian Gregory, founder of pressure group the Alliance of British Drivers (ABD), says of the plans in Surrey: “It’s lunacy transforming 60mph roads to 20mph roads. What about people who are driving for a living? Every journey will take three to four times as long.”

Meanwhile Buckinghamshire Council has recently come under fire for refusing to fund new 20mph zones. A motion put forward last November by councillor Steve Broadbent, the cabinet member for transport, and backed by leader Martin Tett, pointed to neighbouring Oxfordshire County Council, which estimates that replacing its 30mph limit signs with 20mph signs will cost about £8m. The motion also cited a 2018 research study conducted by the Department for Transport (DfT) which concluded: “In the majority of the case studies, the evidence available to date shows no significant change in collisions and casualties in the short term.”

However, a breadth of other studies show that 20mph restrictions can make a significant difference to people’s lives. Speeding traffic is a widely accepted menace, one that many local authorities fail to get to grips with. Last December villagers in Broadminster near Beaminster in Dorset even erected a cardboard box on a pole designed to look like a speed camera to deter anti-social drivers.

Villagers fed up with speeding drivers set up their own cardboard camera - Bournemouth News
Villagers fed up with speeding drivers set up their own cardboard camera - Bournemouth News

Big hitters such as the International Transport Forum at the OECD and the World Health Organization recommend 30km/h (18mph) zones as best practice in residential areas. The “20’s plenty for us” campaign cites statistics from Transport for London (TfL) that claim: “A 42 per cent reduction in all casualties within 20mph zones compared with outside areas.”

In August 2018 the Welsh Government, which announced this summer that it intends to introduce 20mph restrictions across all residential roads in September 2023 in what will be a world first, commissioned a wide-ranging review of the available literature on the impact of the speed restrictions on road traffic casualties and public health across the UK.

One study cited in the review analysed the impact of 20mph zones introduced across Calderdale, West Yorkshire, between 2014 and 2017. Comparing casualty rates in areas before and after introduction of the restrictions, the report found a reduction of between 30 and 40 per cent.

A regular complaint about 20mph zones is they can slow traffic and paradoxically lead to a build up of air pollution in residential areas.One 2013 study conducted by Imperial College London found that, while 20mph zones in central London did lead to a moderate increase in CO2 and NOx (nitrogen oxide) emissions from idling petrol cars, overall slowing the traffic reduced the particulate pollution which is deemed particularly harmful to health and overwhelmingly caused by road traffic. The study also found lower speeds reduces wear on brakes and tyres (the latter being one of the worst sources of microplastic pollution).

Separate research by the DfT has found that if a pedestrian is hit by a car at 20mph they have a 95 per cent chance of surviving. If they’re hit by a car travelling at 30mph, the death rate jumps to 45 per cent. And at 40mph they have just a 15 per cent chance of survival.

“One reason behind the 20mph limit is to keep two objects (drivers and more vulnerable road users) apart from each other,” explains driver behaviour expert and president of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors, Professor Alex Stedmon. “This gives drivers more time and space to respond to hazards.”

Such restrictions are necessary on rural roads, advocates of 20mph argue, because they are the most lethal. According to DfT figures, 43 per cent of traffic is found on rural roads and yet they account for 57 per cent of fatalities.

Critics of the Surrey plans have warned it will alienate drivers who will simply ignore the new restrictions. Professor Stedmon argues that it is important to keep people on side when 20mph zones are implemented. “If reasons for these aren’t communicated properly to people, they feel left out in the cold and can get frustrated,” he says.

However many drivers feel the reasons are perfectly clear – to eventually make driving such an expensive inconvenience it ultimately forces people out of their cars. In 2019 (the most recent representative year), 2.67 million speeding offences were recorded, up by 7.6 per cent compared with the previous year. “The aim is to make driving so unpleasant we won’t do it anymore,” argues Brian Gregory from the ABD.

Certainly, as long as cars have been on British roads, arguments have raged over how to police them. The 1865 Locomotive Act decreed cars couldn’t exceed 2mph in built-up areas and a leisurely 4mph on open roads. Those curbs on the freedom of ever-increasing numbers of car owners, especially the £10 fine – nearly £900 in today’s money – saw the act repealed on 14 November 1896. The speed limit was raised to a heady 14mph.

More than 155 years on and we find ourselves trundling back down to comparative speeds. A new opportunity to free up the roads and take in the joys of the British countryside at a more leisurely pace, perhaps. Or the motoring revolution is running on its final fumes?