20mph speed limits in Wales expected to save £100 million

Wales is set to lower the speed limit in residential areas to 20mph in 2023, with financial, safety, and health benefits all expected.

20mph road sign

Speed limits in residential areas in Wales will be lowered to 20mph from 2023, which is predicted to save millions of pounds and hundreds of lives.

New legislation introduced by the Welsh Senedd in July will come into effect in September 2023, and will reduce the default speed limit for built-up areas in Wales from 30mph to 20mph. It will make Wales the first country in the UK to implement such a speed limit.

This will not mean that all 30-limit roads will be reduced to 20mph, but the Welsh Government says that it will be up to the two Trunk Road Agencies (for South Wales, and North and Mid Wales) to “engage with the local community to decide which roads should remain at 30mph.”

There are several justifications the Welsh Government puts forward for its reduction in the default speed limit for residential areas. 

Pollution is one of these, and it should be reduced thanks to internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles (theoretically) needing to use less fuel to travel at a lower speed. “Accelerating up to 30mph can take twice as much energy as speeding up to 20mph,” the Welsh Government says.

Additionally, safety is expected to improve, as the Welsh Government uses statistics from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) which state that 45% of pedestrians hit by a car travelling at 30mph or less are killed, whereas it is just 5% for those hit by a car travelling at 20mph or less. Furthermore, a car travelling a 30mph, the Welsh Government says, will decelerate to 24mph in the distance it takes for a car travelling at 20mph to stop. 

The limit reduction is also expected by the Welsh Government to encourage more people to use alternative methods of transport, such as cycling or walking. “Lower speeds,” the Welsh Government says, “mean that people feel more comfortable to walk and cycle and it is safer for children to walk to school. Older people, disabled people or people with additional needs will feel more able to travel independently.”

A reduction in speed limits could be seen as a potentially damaging action for journey times and congestion. However, the Welsh Government says that journey times are mostly affected by “junctions and signals, rather than the speed limit.” Additionally, it says that it “[does] not believe that a 20mph speed limit will increase the number of vehicles driving on the road. Potentially traffic will flow more smoothly.”

There has also been a survey conducted by Beaufort Research and published by the Welsh Government which found that the second-most prominent concern about road safety among those interviewed was speeding traffic. 16% of those interviewed listed this as their main road safety concern, while the top-ranking concern was potholes and road condition, which 35% of those interviewed stated as their main road safety concern.

The survey also found that 34% of Welsh adults were not content with the speed limit on their street. Additionally, 44% of people who live on 30-limit streets felt the limit was wrong, whereas for those who live on 20-limit streets this fell to 16%. 

Most crucially, 80% of those interviewed said they would support a 20mph speed limit in the area they lived, and 54% were “strongly in favour,” according to the research. 

The most supportive group of 20mph limits were women, particularly those with children and those in the DE socioeconomic group. On the opposite side, men - particularly those aged 65 and over and those in the AB socioeconomic group - were most opposed to 20mph limits.

Recently published research from the Transport Research Institute (TRI) at Edinburgh Napier University, in conjunction with Public Health Wales, has estimated that the financial savings from the introduction of the new default speed limit to be around £100 million in the first year alone. This is because less money will need to be spent on dealing with road traffic accidents. The Guardian also reports that the new speed limits are expected to save up to 100 lives over the course of 10 years.

The cost of the implementation is estimated by the Welsh Government to be £32 million, meaning in 12 months it is estimated that it will have saved more than three times the money it spent on implementing the new limits.

The research also supports the Welsh Government’s expectations surrounding physical activity (such as walking and cycling). It says that the potential increase in physical activity in residential areas in Wales as a result of the reduced speed limits will cause less obesity, stress, and anxiety. 

It is worth noting of course that the speed limits' justifications, especially in regards to safety, speak exclusively about cars and not about motorcycles. Variable speed limits between cars and motorcycles are not unheard of, although - in Germany for example - they tend to favour the cars when they are implemented. Also, from a safety perspective, having motorcycles overtaking cars every few-hundred metres because they can travel faster is maybe not the greatest solution, and certainly not the simplest, especially in an area full of pedestrians. 

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