Saturday, 25 February 2012

Don't reduce speed limits to 20mph - get rid of them all together...

I don't know how this has come about, but over the last week or so there have been numerous occasions when  my Twitter feed has contained calls for 20 miles an hour speed limits in certain (sometimes all) residential places.

I see the point, speed kills, it is a fact that two identical accidents, one at 20mph one at 70mph the latter would be more likely to have fatalities.  Therefore surely by reducing the maximum speed a vehicle is legally allowed to go there will be fewer accidents and even lower fatality rates, right?

Well this is where I disagree, in fact I would go as far as to remove all speed limits, everywhere.  Now people might think this is the crazy liberal coming out in me (i.e. people should be allowed to drive as fast as they like) - far from it, this is me wanting to reduce accidents and deaths on roads.  I would also go as far as to remove all road signs that aren't directions or absolutely essential.  

There will always be reckless drivers out there - but these people tend to disregard the law anyway, a couple of digits sign wont make a difference here.  People in general though tend to drive at the speed where they feel comfortable, given the conditions, the volume of traffic, the time of day and the surrounding area.

When speed limits are in force people see them as a target, usually hovering just above (in the margin for error), often accelerating quicker to get up to this target speed when the chance arises.  However without speed limits people drive at what they feel is the most appropriate speed. 

My whole premise is that basically, by removing speed limits and traffic signs you shift the risk.  Currently the risk is with the Government, drivers have the signs and limits and think that as they are Government approved then these must be the correct actions to take.  Remove these and the driver has to fall back on their own judgement - and most people are risk averse.

Okay, you're still probably thinking this is just bull, wishy washy idea that wouldn't ever get put into place anywhere...

Except it has.

First off just think of your own experiences for a moment.  How many times have you seen traffic lights out of action?  In these junctions how many times have you seen an accident?  Also, crucially for congestion, how many times have you been held up at them?  Traffic lights are inefficient as they still hold the user on red even if no-one is using the green, roundabouts work a lot better.

Drachten's famous Shared Space Island
There is a town in The Neatherlands called Drachten, they have somewhere between 40 - 50 thousand people living there and had on average 8 serious road accidents per year, with a fatality once every three years or so.  The main junction in Drachten handles about 22,000 cars on a normal day.  In 2003 they adopted a scheme called "Shared Space", ripped out all of their traffic light systems bar 3 (which will soon also be removed) and almost all road signs.  Obviously chaos ensued... Oh no wait, it didn't... Accidents fell to an average of around 0 as has fatalities (there hasn't been one).  That's not all, this has even reduced congestion, speeded up average journey times and currently has the approval of all of the people living there.

Well this all works well and good in an urban area then (especially in a Dutch town - stereotypically lovely people one would assume), but obviously it wouldn't work on higher speed roads...

Except it does.

Typical Montana sign 1995-99
Montana.  USA.  Congress lifted all federal speed limit controls in the November 28, 1995.  Montana went non-numerical (during the day).  In this time average speeds FELL by around 7mph, and accidents fell by around 30%.  

Unfortunately this was reversed in 1999, mainly due to a court case after a driver successfully overturned a conviction for speeding having been driving at around 85mph.  There is now a maximum limit of 75mph in place.

We've also all heard about the German Autobarns, drivers are meant to use their own common sense with regard speed.  They have a better safety record than ANY American highway, and it is comparable to all other neighbouring European countries.  

Unintended Consequences

I have one final point to make, and this firmly belongs in an unintended consequences section.  You try to do things for the best, but it makes things drastically worse.  This is my most disliked traffic calming measure, as it effects every road user in every circumstance, there is no way for anyone to use their common sense and no way for people to avoid it in an emergency.  I am talking of course about speed bumps.  (Although apparently it applies to all traffic calming measures).

The problem of course is that they effect emergency vehicles too!  On average, apparently they extend response times by 14%.  In fact some studies claim that as many as EIGHTY FIVE lives are lost for every ONE live that is saved by them.

Oh, and before you go classifying me as just some young boy racer who wants to test out the top speed of his car - I haven't driven in nearly 6 years, I am more often than not, a pedestrian.  Anything that brings down needless deaths is a good thing, just make sure it's based on evidence and not a fallacy. 


  1. Actually I agree with you mostly. Speed limit signs are targets regardless of the road, traffic and mitigating factors.

    I wonder though if you could achieve the same where as all signs are removed, but general limits kept based off the highway code. So we know for example driving in a residential area is 30 it's generally found when drivers don't know they err on the edge of caution.

  2. Drivers will always break the law, no matter if the lowest speed limit would be 100mph...that's how thinks work...
    I have a friend that has s many speeding tickets Toronto that his license is most of the time suspended...but this didn't stopped him for being so stupid and respect the law when he got the license back....
    It's their nature and unfortunately there's almost nothing we can do, except jail maybe:))