The 20 mph debate: Wolmar v the ABD

The New York mayor, Bill de Blasio, is marking his first year in power by reducing the speed limit in the city to 25mph in an effort to reduce the death toll on its streets. It is time we followed suit in cutting the speed limit in London. The 30mph speed limit in urban areas was devised at a time when death on the roads was an accepted part of daily life. In 1930, before its introduction, more than 7,300 people died in road accidents. At that time there were just over 2m vehicles on the road. It was a controversial move: speed signs were defaced and there was no shortage of irate drivers writing to the Times to protest.

But with speed limits, seat belts, better road engineering and drink-drive legislation, the death toll today is 1,700 with 35m vehicles on the road. That is still far too high. Just as we see the tolerance in the 1930s of such a high death rate as almost Neanderthal, our grandchildren will wonder what on earth we were thinking not properly addressing this tragic toll today.

That is why, if I become London mayor (I am seeking Labour’s nomination for the 2016 election), I would like to ensure that there is a default 20mph zone across the capital. Of course, there will be the odd exception on dual carriageways and open sections of road, but having a basic 20mph limit will reduce casualties and make the city a more pleasant place for pedestrians and cyclists. The effect on traffic speeds, which are around 10mph in central London, will be minimal.

Brian MacDowell, chairman of the Alliance of British Drivers

As is typical for most members of the political class, the new mayor of New York ignores science and facts, focusing instead on emotionalism and political fashions – particularly with the claim that drivers are polluting the planet, causing death and mayhem and must be rigidly controlled. Yes, the 1930s was our worst decade for road accidents but mass car ownership was new, and this, combined with poor design and engineering along with inadequate standards of driver training, was largely to blame for those figures. Today, with significant improvements in design and engineering, and improved training standards, we do as you says have around 1,700 deaths – an all-time low. The single biggest cause of death and injury on our roads is failure to look properly – poor anticipation and observation – not excessive speed.

Your chances of dying from hospital-acquired infections and accidents in the home are much higher, but don’t make headlines as much because the political class are waging war on motorists from several fronts, and an accurate, dispassionate assessment of road safety has been chucked out of the window.


CW Your contribution seems rather bereft of the science and facts you mention, so let me pick you up on the notion that there is “an all-out war on motorists”. I think that few people except for Jeremy Clarkson, wake up in the morning and define themselves as motorists – any more than I define myself as a cyclist, or indeed a motorist or a pedestrian.

We are, though, all people, and that is why we have to put our human needs above those of “the car”. Our roads used to be streets which served a multitude of purposes, from playing to selling, gossiping to walking, rather than just being thoroughfares for heavy and dangerous vehicles. The idea of imposing 20mph limits is the start of a return to that ethos, recreating urban spaces where the car no longer dominates so that it squeezes out all the other aspects of street life. It is not about being anti-motorist, but pro-people.

BM When mass car ownership started to increase (1930s to the 60s), streets were often used as playgrounds and places where people would gather – selling, gossiping etc. We still do these things, but with today’s much larger UK population (64.1 million and rising), life is very different. Parks, playgrounds and leisure centres not only provide facilities for children, they leave the roads clear for vehicles. Clarkson plays into his enemies’ hands by creating a persona, that of a bullish petrolhead. This doesn’t mean all drivers must be treated as morons whose behaviour must be controlled. Addressing the problem through education, not by artificially imposing blanket low speed limits, is a far better way forward – educating drivers to understand higher standards of driving and awareness, and getting children and parents to understand that roads are not for playing in, so that pedestrians have an equal responsibility for road safety. This, rather than blaming drivers for accidents regardless of the cause, will have a more beneficial effect on road safety than lowering speed limits. While it may be easier to measure speed and levy fines, it’s far more effective to engage in a national programme of improved driver training to raise road safety standards.

CW So far you have not given a simple reason why we should not slow down cars in urban areas. We know that pedestrians hit at 20mph have a much greater chance of surviving than those hit at 30mph. We know that fast cars make streets unpleasant for residents. We know that cycling becomes safer if traffic speeds are reduced. And we know that people like it and there is a growing movement across the country for 20mph zones. You should be supporting what people want, instead of trying to protect a minority of drivers who want no control over their activity.

BM Driving is about more than numbers. The range of computations and evaluations done by drivers is greater than the crude measurements performed by speed cameras. We want to avoid accidents, but there needs to be a differential of speeds between different road users. A reasonably fit cyclist can reach 20mph; it is far better if the driver can safely and legally overtake the cyclist and not be in competition with them. Accident rates have been falling since the 1970s but we can achieve lower rates more quickly by ditching the insistence that ever lower speed limits accompanied by strict enforcement is the answer.

CW You seem to have contradicted yourself there. It is precisely because there has been legislation on speeding and other dangerous aspects of driving that the casualty rate has fallen. Even you seem to accept that if everyone were whizzing around towns at 50mph, as happened in the 1930s, there would undoubtedly be a higher death rate. So surely, reducing the limit from 30mph to 20mph, both reducing accidents and making them less serious, will contribute to further reductions in casualties. That’s because in the distance that a 20mph driver can stop, a 30mph driver will still be doing 24mph. Surely, reducing casualties is good for the motoring lobby, too?

BM I invite you to address next year’s annual meeting of the Alliance of British Drivers. If lowering the speed limit with rigid enforcement was the answer, there would be no accidents. The fact that accidents occur even at today’s low limits show that there are other factors. Road safety has been manipulated for political ends. We have created overcautious drivers, in itself a recipe for increasing accidents. Treating road safety as a lifelong skill, where skill behind the wheel is the aim, will, with little enforcement, produce the desired effect.

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