Reducing the speed limit will improve child health for at least three reasons. Firstly, slower traffic makes for safer streets which means that fewer children are killed on Scottish roads. Secondly, slower traffic will encourage children to walk and change their lifestyle to one which counters the obesity epidemic. Thirdly, slower (and less) traffic passing through residential areas will improve the quality of air that children breathe in.
Safety is of course a key issue here. Parents will not have the confidence to allow their children to play outside if our country’s roads are too dangerous. Sadly, we know that road traffic injuries are a leading cause of death in children and young people across the UK. On average six children under the age of sixteen died annually on Scotland’s roads between 2011 and 2013. The evidence shows that the risk of a child being seriously injured or killed in a road traffic accident increases exponentially as speed increases. Reducing the speed limit in built-up areas will help to reduce fatalities on the road and make outdoor activity a more attractive option for children and their families. That’s why we at the RCPCH support the introduction of 20mph zones in Scotland, which would create safer spaces for children in their communities to walk, cycle and play.
More than a quarter of Scottish children are overweight or obese, and this is associated with childhood mental health and orthopaedic problems and putting them on course to develop potentially devastating illnesses which include type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke and heart disease in early adulthood. There is no silver bullet for tackling childhood obesity, with a wide range of interventions needed to not only prevent children from becoming overweight or obese, but also support those who already are struggling with their weight. However, we do know that regular physical activity helps to keep children a healthy weight, and contributes to greater wellbeing.
The Scottish Government has a responsibility to encourage physical activity for all children and young people and support families to lead healthier lifestyles by improving social and physical environments.
The impact of poor quality air on child health is fast gaining recognition. The invisible, tasteless pollutants which include nitrogen dioxide and fine particulates are harmful to unborn babies, infants and children. These pollutants are produced by fossil fuel combustion and any measure to reduce fuel being burnt close to children is welcome.
In our landmark 2017 report, State of Child Health, we call for Scottish Government to tackle childhood obesity and reduce child deaths. We are clear that the introduction of 20mph speed zones will help to achieve both these recommendations, but it is only through legislation that this change can be delivered. Legislation will ensure that the speed limit is enforceable by law and that it is applied consistently throughout all built up areas in the country, so that drivers will assume if they are in a built-up area the speed limit must be 20mph. Clear signage and a publicity campaign to communicate the change will also help with the implementation of the legislation and ensure the public are aware of the new speed limit.
At the RCPCH, we’d like to see a wider debate on making our roads safer for children and young people considering, for example, the introduction of a graduated driving license scheme for novice drivers. Further measures to ensure that children and their families lead healthier lifestyles, too, are needed – and we hope to see Scottish Government’s Diet and Healthy Weight Delivery Plan implemented fully to address this. But the Restricted Roads (20 mph Speed Limit) (Scotland) Bill marks a significant step in the right direction towards achieving safer roads for all, and thus, safer spaces for children across Scotland to spend their all-important recreational time outdoors.
Professor Steve Turner, Officer for Scotland, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health