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Strategic slow down

Road safety

Why read this?

The Government published its new road safety policy last week

No new national speed limits are to be imposed - yet

Roads are to be reclassified along speed management lines

The Government has targeted lower speed as the key to reducing road deaths but is not imposing lower speed limits. Will other measures reduce vehicle speeds and improve road safety? Damian Arnold reports.

Road safety campaigners had hoped the Government would announce a blanket reduction in speed limits for rural and village roads when it unveiled its road safety strategy last week. They were disappointed. Instead, the Government has pushed responsibility for bringing down speed limits to local authorities, for the time being at least.

The Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions strategy document Tomorrow's roads: safer for everyone sets out a series of measures it believes are needed to secure a 40% drop in road casualties by 2010.

The strategy includes measures to reduce drink driving, improve child safety and driving standards and impose slower speeds. It also includes plans to redefine the hierarchy of roads before bringing in new speed limits for rural roads.

DETR has no immediate plans to reduce the urban speed limit from 30mph to 20mph, or cut the 60mph national speed limit for rural single carriageway roads. Instead it plans to reclassify roads 'for speed management purposes', replacing the existing hierarchy of A, B, C and unclassified roads. This is eventually expected to lead to a lower national speed limit for single carriageway roads.

Reclassification is expected to take several years

Engineers are divided as to whether a new national speed limit framework can reconcile national consistency and local flexibility. But all agree that this approach is the right one while stating that working towards better compliance with existing speed limits is equally important.

Meanwhile, the new road safety policy document encourages local authorities to start cutting speeds on the most dangerous urban and country roads by between 10mph and 20mph. The Government will make it easier for them to reduce speed limits by allowing them to apply for one overall package of speed reduction measures in their Local Transport Plans, rather than making applications on a road by road basis.

New road safety policy encourages the creation of 20mph zones near schools as a priority, to help reach the new 50% road casualty reduction target for children by 2010. This follows last year's decision allowing local authorities to introduce 20mph zones without prior approval from the Secretary of State.

Lobby group Transport 2000 sees the decision not to introduce a blanket 20mph limit for all urban areas as a 'cop out'. But the move has been widely applauded by local authorities who fear lower speed limits will increase congestion and fuel emissions. They also say imposing them is unworkable without huge traffic calming investment.

'What people have not taken into account are the huge economic losses of a 20mph speed limit. A much better approach is to look at locations where safety is paramount and put in a lower speed limit. Sometimes different solutions to a lower speed limit are needed anyway, such as a pedestrian crossing. Children come in and out of schools for two half hours a day. Why should traffic in that area drive at 20mph for the whole day?' asks Denvil Coombe, deputy managing director of traffic consultant MVA.

Derbyshire County Council environmental services director David Harvey says: 'What worries me most is that 20mph outside schools will not deliver the proper reductions because the majority of road accidents involving children occur in cars and not around schools. The new zones could give pedestrians a false sense of security and that could be dangerous.'

Another problem is the cost of bringing in 20mph zones. Tomorrow's roads: safer for everyone acknowledges that lower urban speed limits need to be accompanied by traffic calming. The policy document states: 'Speed limits on their own have little effect on vehicle speeds. In places where speed limits have been reduced and no other action taken, the change in mean traffic speed is observed to be about a quarter of the change in posted speed limit.'

Many engineers agree. A heavy traffic calming investment programme in York has reduced accident rates by 20%. But traffic calming is expensive and the Government's claim last week that as much as £100M extra will be spent on road safety as a result of this year's Local Transport Plan settlement pales in comparison to the £2.3bn which is said to be needed to traffic calm Britain's streets (NCE 18 November 1999).

Engineers are more enthusiastic about proposals to introduce 30mph limits in rural villages, with the speed limit displayed on the village sign. The DETR policy document praises a pilot project to introduce 30mph limits in Suffolk and indicates that guidance for local authorities on the setting of county wide village speed limits will be forthcoming.

Suffolk County Councillor Ros Scott claims that the Suffolk project was effective without costly engineering measures. Average speeds only dropped marginally but accident rates fell 20%. The key, she said was a concerted campaign in the local media and the gaining of 70,000 signatures from people pledging their support.

She said: 'We consulted with every village in Suffolk in 1994 and went on to set a 30mph limit in villages in more than 600 parishes over three years. It was very difficult - how do you define a village? What happens if a driver comes to the end of the village speed limit and then encounters a sharp bend? Drivers can get very upset so we didn't impose a strict criteria with the zones we created.'

Other local authority projects similar to that in Suffolk will now be seen as part of a 'suck it and see' approach before a lower national speed limit for country lanes is considered.

The policy document states: 'It is often suggested we set a lower national speed limit for these roads. But how could that be legally defined? What constitutes a country lane? Given that signing is such a sensitive issue in the countryside, how would we make the limit clear to drivers? These questions have yet to be answered. We need more information before we can properly assess the case for a lower national speed limit.'

In the meantime, local authorities will continue to set their own lower speed limits before a nationwide policy is set: 'Some authorities have already established lower speed zones and we will learn from experience,' says the document.

Tomorrow's roads - safer for everyone and New Directions in Speed management - a review of policy available from DETR, Free Literature, tel (0870) 1226236.

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