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Is Plan for Drivers declaring war on pedestrians and cyclists?

The Government’s Plan for Drivers seems to ignore all of the beneficial outcomes of lower speed limits and fails to recognise that drivers have lives outside their cars, writes Rod King of 20's Plenty

Rod King
21 March 2024


The Government has recently published an update to the 2013 guidance to local Traffic Authorities on setting local speed limits. This was promised at the last Conservative Conference when it launched its Plan for Drivers in what is widely recognised as an attempt to gather support in anticipation of a 2024 election.

Our response to the Department for Transport Circular 01/2013 (March 2024 revision) can be broken down into 3 areas:

  • Why have the revisions been made?
  • What are the key elements of the revised guidance?
  • What will be the impact from the revised guidance?

Why have the revisions been made?

The Plan for Drivers noted: “The introduction of 20mph speed limits in all residential areas in Wales and the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone in London has shone a spotlight on the issues drivers are facing.”

Whilst not competent to comment on the ULEZ in London, we would point out that:

  • The ability to set a national default 20mph limit for residential areas in Wales was specifically included when the Conservative UK Government passed the Wales Act (2017). It was the current government that enabled Wales to set such an urban/village norm with local Traffic Authorities able to make exceptions. 
  • It was Conservative Members of Senedd who proposed using the devolved powers to set the limit enabled by a Conservative government. The legislative path from UK Government Wales Act (2017) enactment to implementation of a national default 20mph limit may be seen in our briefing ‘What is the democratic mandate for a national 20mph default limit in Wales?’

The Plan for Drivers actions called for the “right speed limits in the right places”. It proposed an update of 20mph zone guidance for England to “help prevent inappropriate blanket use”.

Of course, the “right speed limits in the right places” is something which we could all agree with. The number of drivers disagreeing with any specific speed limit on a road does not indicate any “wrongness” but often indicates how “right” such a limit is and how much it is needed.

In England 20 million people live in places where a 20mph limit exists or is being set for most urban/village roads. Most of these have been implemented as “20mph limits” rather than ”20mph zones”.

As for “inappropriate blanket use”, we note that the Conservative-controlled City of Westminster Council set all its roads to 20mph, which has included the A3212 outside the Palace of Westminster. Maybe their view on an appropriate limit goes beyond drivers and includes the benefits to MPs, Lords and members of the public walking and cycling.  

We note that the Government and DfT have not published a ‘Plan for pedestrians and cyclists’, a ‘Plan for child and elderly mobility’, a ‘Plan for place-making in communities’ or a ‘Plan for Public Health’. 

Whilst we could have hoped for any or all of these in the public interest, the current Plan for Drivers seems to be a plan against all of these beneficial outcomes of lower speed limits. This is a plan that fails to recognise that drivers have lives outside their cars. Lives in which their children, the elderly, the disabled, air pollution, noise and public health do matter to them. The Plan for Drivers and its consequences will discriminate against all of these people, many of whom have characteristics that are protected under the Equalities Act.

From this flawed plan, the DfT has revised its guidance on setting local speed limits.

What are the key elements of the revised guidance?

There are some fundamental elements of the guidance which remain.

The guidance is not binding. It says: “The legislative power for setting local speed limits lies with the traffic authority. This guidance is not binding on them. Traffic authorities do, however, have an obligation to conform to relevant legislation.”

Note that there is no change to relevant legislation. Local authorities have a wide set of responsibilities and when setting local speed limits will take these into account.

The need to take full account of the needs of vulnerable road users

Paragraph 33 states: “Different road users perceive risks and appropriate speeds differently, and drivers and riders of motor vehicles often do not have the same perception of the hazards of speed as do people on foot, on bicycles or on horseback. Fear of traffic can affect people’s quality of life, and the needs of vulnerable road users must be fully taken into account to encourage these modes of travel and improve their safety. Speed management strategies should seek to protect local community life.”

The retention of paragraph 33 regarding protecting vulnerable road users is the key statement in the whole guidance and the “must” overrides many of the “could” or “should” guidance.

Misrepresenting established literature

At the start of the chapter on Urban Speed Limits the guidance retains the previous paragraph 79, which states: “Research has shown that the risk of a pedestrian dying in a collision with a car increases slowly up to an impact speed of around 30mph, but at speeds above 30mph, the risk of death increases rapidly (Rosén and Sander, 2009). The safety of car occupants can also be improved by lower speeds, and research in London showed that the largest casualty reductions associated with 20mph zones (that is, with traffic calming) were in the numbers of children and car occupants killed and seriously injured (Grundy et al, 2008).”

This reference to the Rosen and Sander 2009 report implies that there is little difference in survivability between 20mph and 30mph. This is not consistent with the findings of the report. 

The report's authors actually conclude: “However, a strong dependence on impact speed is present, with the risk at 50 km/h (32mph) being more than twice as high as the risk at 40 km/h (25mph)  and more than five times higher than the risk at 30 km/h (18.5mph). This shows the importance of keeping impact speeds as low as possible within city areas where most pedestrian accidents occur.”

Converting the impact speeds from km/h to mph it can be seen that the risk of fatality vs impact speed is 32km/h (20mph) 1.7% and 48km/h (30mph) 7.0%.

So, whilst fatality risk does increase gradually up to 20mph, it increases four times higher between 20mph and 30mph. A four-fold increase in pedestrian fatality risk from 20mph to 30mph cannot be viewed as “increasing slowly”.

We would, therefore, maintain that the DfT reference to the findings of the report and only saying that “pedestrian risk increases slowly up to 30mph” is false and misrepresents the Rosen and Sander 2009 findings to the extent that the whole guidance lacks credibility. 

It is far more accurate to quote the authors’ conclusion on the difference between 30km/h and 50 km/h than make some vague reference to pedestrian risk increasing slowly up to 30mph. It is disappointing that the guidance retains this misrepresentation.

What are the revisions?

There are many minor revisions that, in the main, are not evidential and appear to show nothing other than a prejudice against lower speed limits. They fail to take account of recent evidence and add opinion rather than evidential fact.

It is largely a missed opportunity to take account of all the changes on the ground that have occurred since the guidance was first issued in January 2013 – over a decade ago.  In some cases, the revisions have simply confused matters further and some statements are included without evidence.

In paragraph 78 this section in the original guidance has been completely removed :

“It is on urban roads that the majority of road casualties occur, including 87% of all pedestrian and 83% of all pedal cyclists casualties (DfT, 2011). Collisions typically involve pedestrians and cyclists, including children, and knowledge of the relationship between vehicle speed and injury severity in any collision must inform decisions on speed limits.”

There is no basis for removing this reference. Indeed, in 2022 the majority of road casualties were on urban roads, including exactly the same 88% of all pedestrian and 83% of all pedal cyclist casualties. And that urban roads account for a much higher proportion of road casualties (63%) than their relative traffic level (35%).

If the fact that “collisions typically involve pedestrians and cyclists, including children, and knowledge of the relationship between vehicle speed and injury severity in any collision must inform decisions on speed limits” was important in 2013, what does this say about the current values of the Government when with identical percentage of vulnerable road user casualties on urban roads in 2024, this important aspect guidance is no longer required.

It begs the question as to whether the development of this guidance has met the public sector equality duties in removing this paragraph.

In paragraph 80 a statement is added that: “Authorities should remember that the reduction of a speed limit leads to longer journey times, which, in turn, can lead to increased air pollution and climate impacts and could also damage local businesses. They should take this into account in their considerations.”

On the contrary, all of the latest research shows little or no impact on journey times and LOWER pollution with 20mph. Paragraph 80 now contradicts paragraph 35, which states that it is steady (not faster) speeds which result in shorter and more reliable journey times and that “journey time savings from higher speeds are often overestimated”.

Paragraph 80 also now emphasises the need for Local Highway Authorities to consult local opinion, which most already do extensively. This may well nudge those highway authorities that have in the past rejected the wishes of local communities asking for lower speed limits into more positive action. 

Research studies that are representative of the UK population consistently find that 20mph speed limits across residential areas are very popular.

Paragraph 82 also refers to the need to consider safety.  Since most casualties in urban areas are on faster roads, the clear implication is that these need to be included in schemes.  Restricting 20mph to already low speed roads with few casualties is not justified. 

In paragraph 100 the text has been changed and now states: “Research into signed-only 20mph limits shows that they generally lead to only small reductions in traffic speeds – less than 1mph on average.”

This is not evidenced by recent research on wide-area 20mph limits in built-up areas that have included faster roads. This evidence from Scottish Borders, Edinburgh, London, Wales and elsewhere shows that on faster roads where most casualties occur, average speeds reduce by up to 5-6mph and there are significant reductions in casualties.

In paragraph 101 the Atkins report is quoted, yet this research is far from conclusive. 

We question the inclusion of references to the Atkins 2018 report in paragraph 101. The Atkins report mainly considered small, isolated 20mph schemes rather than community-wide 20mph adoption. As such its evidence base was inadequate to provide and valuable information. This was the subject of our own briefing on the report in 2019 entitled Unanswered questions about the DfT's 20mph Study.

Since then, many reports on authority-wide implementations of 20mph as a norm have shown far higher reductions in median speed than the Atkins findings of 1mph. On faster roads average speeds have been found to reduce by up to 5-6 mph. Transport for London reported a 63% reduction in pedestrian casualties after implementing 20mph limits on arterial roads.

A recent report from the Welsh Government implementation of 20mph as a national default has shown an average speed reduction of 3mph across all communities.

We also note that there is no mention of UK joining 129 other nations at the 2020 3rd Ministerial Global Conference on Road Safety in endorsing the Stockholm Declaration, which on Speed Management resolved to: Focus on speed management, including the strengthening of law enforcement to prevent speeding and mandate a maximum road travel speed of 30 km/h in areas where vulnerable road users and vehicles mix in a frequent and planned manner, except where strong evidence exists that higher speeds are safe, noting that efforts to reduce speed in general will have a beneficial impact on air quality and climate change as well as being vital to reduce road traffic deaths and injuries.

This was subsequently built into the UN Road Safety Strategy 2021-2030 and is a key element of a Safe System and Vision Zero approach to road management.

Whilst the government has expressed the view that this is an aspiration rather than a commitment, it is disappointing that this global best practice standard has not been referenced in the guidance.

What will the impact be from the revised guidance?

It has always been clear from the DfT and the actions of local Traffic Authorities that the DfT guidance was indeed just guidance rather than a set of rules. 

The setting of lower urban/village speed limits is determined by reference to many local authority objectives including road safety, public health, noise, air quality, active travel, child and elderly mobility, mobility equality and cost-effective mobility.

These values and objectives have led to 61 local traffic authorities in England either having set 20mph for most urban/village streets or being in the process of such a change. Much of this has been done at the request and funding of central government in its previous plans for greener, safer, more equitable and more liveable communities.

What is notable about the use of the guidance is that those local authorities with a strong commitment to the above objectives and values have interpreted the 2013 guidance in a manner to facilitate the delivery of safer and healthier streets through 20mph limits. Equally, those local authorities with less of a commitment to those objectives and values have sometimes used the guidance as a fig-leaf to justify no action.

This will continue. The need for local authorities to take road safety seriously as required by legislation and the imperative (musts) within this guidance to “take full account of the needs of vulnerable road users”, as well as the public sector equality duty, will empower them to set 20mph limits as an integral part of the road safety and road management strategies.

This updated guidance misrepresents both established literature on the fatality risk of impact speeds and also the considerable benefits that authorities are gaining from a wide implementation of 20mph as a norm. 

Besides being less than credible, it is difficult to see the guidance within the context of the Government’s Plan for Drivers as anything other than the weaponising of road safety for political opportunism. 

The Government keeps referencing a “war on the motorist” that has never existed, and it now appears that through its actions it may be starting a “war on pedestrians and cyclists” who could be the unfortunate victims and casualties of the flawed guidance update. Sadly, there will be people who will use this update and the media stories around it to justify their own speeding and increased potential to kill vulnerable road users.

The UK once had a fine global reputation for road safety, but the absence of a Road Safety Strategy since 2019 and moves such as this politically motivated and erroneous update bring the DfT and government into disrepute. 

The update will do little to change community and local authority appetite for lower speed limits where they live, play, shop, work, learn, walk and cycle. 

We are confident that responsible local authorities will continue to roll out wide-area 20mph limits to the benefit of all their citizens and particularly their more vulnerable road users to create better places for all.

Rod King MBE is Founder and Campaign Director for 20's Plenty for Us 

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