When Amanda Jobson canvassed views on 20mph limits, she was shocked. Many adults she spoke to in Hastings are still, years later, experiencing the effect of traffic accidents they suffered as children. “It was awful what happened to them”, she said, having talked to people who had been injured when they were children and who are now adults. “It changed their lives. They are disabled people now – their mental and physical abilities are not the same.”
Cllr Jobson was speaking at a meeting of Hastings Borough Council. On the agenda was a call to adopt 20mph town-wide, throughout Hastings and St Leonards. Other benefits for 20mph limits, she said, are better connected communities, improved air quality and a 50% fall in traffic noise.
But just how effective are reduced limits? The argument against is that the police are too stretched to enforce them. Drivers know this and so drive as fast as they see fit.
However, new research into cities with 20mph limits, such as Edinburgh, reveals they do make a difference: it can reduce road deaths by almost a quarter, reports the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR).
Hastings councillors overwhelmingly backed the lower limit. The town itself does not have the authority to impose it – this falls to the guardians of the roads, East Sussex County Council (ESCC). But it is hoped the county will be forced to take a town-wide proposal more seriously.
East Sussex County Council must be persuaded to back the 20mph limits
Previous attempts, going back years, to persuade ESCC to impose 20mph limits on individual roads have largely failed. The argument for not doing so seems to involve some chilling criteria. One councillor, John Rankin, asked a county official: “Has a child got to die on this street to get something done?” “Unfortunately, yes” was the answer.
Another official told Cllr Claire Carr, a mother of five: “What we need are more fatalities.”
But change may be on the way. Encouraged by the group 20’s Plenty for Us, the call for 20mph is growing throughout East Sussex. Earlier this year both Lewes and Eastbourne councils passed similar motions to Hastings. Battle wants 20mph as do parish councils, among them Laughton, Kingston, Crowhurst, Brightling, Chailey and Iford. Support was also expected in Uckfield, Ewhurst, and Hamsey.
The county is playing catch-up in some respects. One in three towns in the UK as a whole have replaced 30mph with 20mph signs, according to a motor trade journal report. All eyes will be on Wales next year, when it adopts 20mph in communities throughout the principality.
In Brighton and Hove the first 20mph limit signs appeared in April 2013. The council reported at the time that a majority of residents were in favour, after carrying out a city-wide consultation.
As a frequent visitor to the city, I can’t say these are working as well as the council perhaps had hoped. They are, in fact, too often ignored. However, the evidence points to some partial success. Figures published by the council reveal a drop of over 20% in the number of serious road accidents in the first year to 43 compared to a three-year average of 53. There were no deaths, compared to an average of one a year in the previous three years.
Imposing 20mph limits may, to some, seem like a waste of money. Limits – unlike on main roads with their speed cameras – can be too easily breached. Jobson claims that the cost for Hastings works out to as little as £5 per person. In Brighton and Hove, the funds for the move to 20mph came from the Department for Transport.
A 20mph limit will save lives
Research suggests that, whoever pays, the investment in a lower speed limit is worth trying.
Seconding the Hastings motion, Cllr Andy Batsford pointed out that someone hit by a car travelling at 30mph has a 20% chance of dying in that collision. “If you’re driving at 20mph there’s only 2.5% chance of them dying. That’s a massive difference.”
Fellow councillor, Ali Roark, put it a different way: “People tend to drive just above the speed limit, at 35mph and, if we’re talking about children walking out between parked cars, if a child is hit at 25mph because someone is fudging the 20mph speed limit, they’re much more likely to survive than if they were hit at 35.”
The psychology of this is hard to argue against. Government figures show that a 1mph reduction in average speed reduces the frequency of collisions by around 5%.
Getting people to lower their speed, by even just a little, is an important gain. And when we are talking about people’s lives – lives that Jobson found were wrecked by speeding drivers – it seems worth the cost of putting up some signs.
Saving just one random death or serious injury on our local roads: that surely has to matter. That surely is worth it.