Speed limits on residential roads are falling. Except in Surrey. Time for the county to change gear.

This article by Sam Laurie appeared in the March 2013 edition of The Guildford Magazine:

SLOW CHANGE. Speed limits on residential roads are falling. Except in Surrey. Time for the county to change gear.


Just before Christmas, Andrew Smith, head of Rodborough Technology College near Godalming, learnt that yet another of his pupils had been knocked down outside the school. A 15-year-old girl was in A&E, having been clipped by the wing mirror of a car and knocked unconscious. The car, travelling at 30 mph, didn’t stop. It was the fourth such accident in the vicinity within a year. But even as Smith was penning a letter to parents venting his frustration at the council’s reluctance to lower the speed limit near the school, 40 Tory councillors were voting down a motion to make it easier to implement 20 mph zones when and where communities ask for them.

Something is happening around the country that is not happening in Surrey: traffic is slowing down. Encouraged by an increasingly enthusiastic government – and galvanised by 70-80% satisfaction surveys – councils from Bristol to Portsmouth to Lancashire are introducing 20 mph limits on residential roads.

Eight million people in the UK now live in a local authority that has 20 mph as the default limit for residential streets.  Slower roads are safer witness a 42% reduction in casualties in London’s 20 mph areas – and encourage more cyclists and walkers (both up by 20% in Bristol). Moreover the impact on journey times is negligible. In the most typical model – main roads 30 mph, but residential roads lowered to 20 mph – average times have risen by just 40 seconds. As M25 engineers have long known, heavy traffic merges faster at slower speeds.

Yet in Surrey there is nothing but resistance to the idea. Incredibly, last year the council rejected best practice guidelines issued by the Department of Transport that make it easier to implement 20 mph limits on more roads. Over the past seven years it has created just three 20 mph zones across the entire county.

Surrey does not believe, explains road safety team manager Duncan Knox, that reducing speed limits without enforcement works. Since the police are unwilling to take on further responsibility, councils can either issue a 20 mph limit for all residential roads and rely on public decency for adherence, or introduce isolated zones self-enforced with traffic bumps or chicanes. Surrey favours the latter.

At £60,000 per km, however, this is a limited solution. Moreover, it often increases driver frustration and danger to pedestrians, as cars speed up once out of the zone. A cheaper option is to install electronic signs for just £1,100 per km. Yet this makes for an average speed reduction of just 1.3 mph – pointless, says Knox, and may lead drivers to “disrespect limits in general”.

But the experience of other authorities signals otherwise: self-policed limits are a nudge toward a cultural shift in driver behaviour. In Portsmouth, where there is no physical calming, casualties have fallen by 22%. Because so many of its residents now live in 20 mph zones – and would not want it otherwise – they are much more likely to respect the limit on other roads.

By means of social – rather than traffic – engineering, change is under way. But it requires political will. And in Surrey, which has the highest levels of car ownership in the UK, the Cabinet Member responsible for Transport and Environment is unmoved. “In a county as vibrant as Surrey, widespread 20 mph limits would not work,” insists John Furey. “Our economy works because people can get around quickly.” Furey is wrong: driving quickly along residential roads is not the cornerstone of a vibrant economy. Nor does driving faster between congestion points speed up journeys. Most of all, Furey has misread the public mood. “Surrey,” he continues, “does not have 20 mph zones because the people of Surrey haven’t asked for it.”

They have. From Weybridge to Godalming to Dorking and beyond, there are 20 mph campaigns that have run aground against a council policy couched in reluctance and with party politics at its heart. Slower traffic is a key tenet of Lib Dem policy. In Conservative-run Surrey, the matter is less about the quality of the politics than its colour.

Britain has the lowest levels of children cycling to school in Europe and the highest rate of pedestrian road fatalities. Residential roads here are 60% faster than in the US. In Richmond, where just 2% of roads are 20 mph – as against 36% next door in Kingston – cycling casualties are rising. If Surrey residents want roads that children can play in, that older people can cross safely and that are not all governed by motorists, one of two things must change: council policy or the councillors themselves.

What do you think? For information on how to lobby for more 20 mph speed limits, join Samantha’s campaign on this website: surreydownsmagazine.co.uk

In Haslemere, there is a working group of the Haslemere Neighbourhood Planning Forum that supports 20 mile speed limits and is working with the organisation, 20 is Plenty For Us. E-mail editor@haslemerparking.com if you’d like to make contact with this group.

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One Response to Speed limits on residential roads are falling. Except in Surrey. Time for the county to change gear.

  1. Paul M says:

    Coucillor Furey’s comments are absurd, but more worrying are the comments of Duncan Knox. Mr Furey is an amateur, a councillor. Knox is a professional and so should know better.

    Some of the absurdities in their arguments:

    – the police are unwilling to enforce. Well, let us be clear, the police do not set priorities for which laws they enforce, we – their paymasters – do
    – self-policed limits will not lead to reductions. If that is the case, why have speed limits at all? Are they suggesting that 30mph limits should also be enforced with physical measures or done away with?
    – while it is, sadly, true that a majority of drivers ignore speed limits – any speed limits, the converse is that a significant majority will obey them, and will obey a new lower limit
    – Surrey apparently prefers to make fewer 20 zones with traffic calming rather than more without. It is true that calmng measures are more effective but at 60 times the cost per kilometre the small average reduction on every street definitely outperforms a larger reduction on just a few
    – every 1mph reduction in average speeds produces a 6% reduction in the frequency of collisions, as well as a reduction in their severity which is exponential.

    20 mph limits are highly popular with local people, they are supported by the DfT which has relaxed its guidelines on 20 limits recently, and they are endorsed by both the AA and the RAC. It is only really loony-tune lobbyists like the Association of British Drivers and saloon-bar bores who oppose them, with plausible sounding but scientifically dubious arguments. It is high time that Furey and Surrey CC woke up and smelt the coffee on this one.

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