Scotland needs 20mph vision for safer streets

It was over three decades ago that a child in my class at school was struck down and killed while out playing on his bike. His death sent out a shock wave throughout the whole school community and although I didn’t know him that well, his death still preys on my mind today, especially when I see my own kids enjoying playing out.

There was a view from some adults at the time that he was responsible in some way for his own tragic death. Thankfully, times have begun to move on. We now see the benefits of designing communities to be safer and friendlier and recognise that children do not have the same capability to judge speed as adults do. Errors will always be made by children, by drivers and cyclists, we need to ensure that the consequences of mistakes are not life changing or life ending. Streets belong to us, they are the spaces that make up our communities, where the car should be the guest not the king.

That’s one of many reasons why I have brought forward my Holyrood Bill to switch the speed limit on the roads where we live, work and play from 30 to 20mph.

There is a wealth of evidence that reducing speed means less accidents. Every 1mph reduction in average speed cuts the accident rate by 6%; if we scale that up across every residential street in Scotland then we can avoid hundreds of casualties and a significant number of deaths every single year. The devastation caused by road traffic fatalities and injuries is huge to communities and families, but wider society also bears the cost through emergency services, and long term care in the NHS.

The impact ripples out further as streets feel unsafe, children are held back and kept in, walking and cycling rates go down as fear and perception of danger take over our collective mind set. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Some argue that there is no point changing the default speed limit as drivers would ignore it, but the evidence is clear that this is not the case. An evaluation of Bristol’s area-wide 20mph roll-out found that it led to savings of over £15m a year, proving that reducing the speed limit is a cost effective intervention that can save and protect lives and promote wellbeing. On 20mph roads only 18% of drivers go faster than 30mph, while on 30mph roads over half do, so lower limits slash the number of cars travelling at speeds where pedestrian accident survival rates are devastatingly low.

A national change of the default speed limit in built-up areas to 20mph would bring consistency across the country and usher in a culture change in how we drive. It would enable the Scottish Government to reinforce the message that when in town, slow down. There are great examples in Edinburgh of where the Police have maximised the use of their limited resources to increase driver compliance on 20mph roads, working with Community Speed Watch campaigns in hotspots to stop drivers and explain the consequences of speeding. Over time, 20mph can become the new social norm in the way that drink-driving is now seen as deeply anti-social.

There are strong equalities benefits for reducing speed limits too. Deprived communities have higher pedestrian accident rates but less car ownership. A survey in Fife where 20mph was introduced showed a 20% cut in accident rates after the first 3 years, but even higher reductions in deprived areas. Women in particular are more likely to die in vehicle accidents than men, yet have less access to cars and are more likely to walk and use public transport. So 20mph streets are a universal benefit for everyone, especially the vulnerable, the elderly and the young, growing confidence in a slower speed environment.

Some Councils including Edinburgh, Fife and Clackmannanshire are leading the way by replacing 30 with 20 limits on every residential street. However it’s a postcode lottery. For example in the Falkirk constituency of Transport Minister Michael Matheson there are no 20mph streets, whereas in neighbouring Clacks they are the norm in every last town and village. 

Scottish Government policy is for 20mph in residential areas and yet so far they have allowed a handful of 20 zones to be the isolated exceptions to an unsafe 30mph blanket speed limit. It’s time we turned this on its head and made 20mph the default on residential streets. 30mph roads are still important, but they should be the exception, used only for faster through roads, not the streets where we live. Scotland has led on bold public health interventions such as the smoking ban, we need the political leadership to now slow the speed limit in our communities. It’s popular too, with surveys showing at least two thirds of the Scottish public back a default 20mph limit. It’s time for the Scottish Government to get off the fence and back safer streets for everyone.