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Wales becomes first nation to introduce default 20 mph speed limit in built-up areas

Wales has become the first nation to introduce a default 20 mph (30 km/h) speed limit in built-up areas.
Wales has become the first nation to introduce a default 20 mph (30 km/h) speed limit in built-up areas.   -   Copyright  Canva
By Jack Ramage

Wales will introduce a default speed limit of 20 mph (30 km/h) in built-up areas from next year, in a bid to lower road collisions and noise pollution, as well as encourage people to walk or cycle.

The Welsh parliament voted on Tuesday to back the plan, which will bring down the speed limit currently set at 30 mph (50 km/h) on most busy streets and residential roads.

The move makes Wales the first nation to make 20 mph the default speed limit on most roads. The new law is expected to come into force in September 2023.

Many towns and cities across the UK already have 20 mph limits in place, however, no country has yet imposed a default limit on all roads nationwide. Scotland is set to introduce similar driving laws in 2025.

The Welsh Government estimates that the initial change in signage would cost £33 million (€38.96 million) but that it could ultimately save £58 million (€68.49 million) in reduced emergency services and hospital admissions over the next 30 years.

Saving money and lives

The government and campaigners argues the move will save lives.

Police data from 2018 showed half of all injuries and 40 per cent of deaths in road collisions in Wales happened on 30 mph roads or zones.

Eight pilot trials have already taken place across Wales, regarded as a success by Welsh ministers.

"We know that 20 mph zones reduce speed of traffic, reduce accidents - particularly accidents to children," Wales' First Minister, Mark Drakeford, told parliament.

"We want to see that become the default position right across Wales."

Supporters of the proposal say that pedestrians are 40 per cent less likely to die when hit by a car travelling at 20 mph compared to one travelling at 30 mph – with stopping distances almost halved between both speeds.

"Travelling at 20 mph has been shown to reduce the risk of crashing and the severity of crashes that do still happen,” said Dr Sarah Jones, consultant in environmental public health at Public Health Wales.

"It also produces less noise pollution and reduces fuel consumption. It encourages people to walk and cycle, helping to fight obesity and improve mental well-being.

"All of these are likely to contribute to improvements in health and reduction in the demands for health services, which will help the NHS recovery from COVID”.

More congestion, longer journeys?

Both Labour and Plaid Cymru, who have a cooperation agreement and hold almost three-quarters of the 60 Senedd seats, backed the plan, but it has been met with criticism too.

A consultation conducted last year – which surveyed over 6,000 people on their opinions of the scheme – revealed 53 per cent of people said they were against the lower default limit, as opposed to 47 per cent who were in favour.

Reasons for opposing the scheme ranged from concerns it could “annoy” drivers to an increase in journey time and congestion.

The proposal has also sparked uproar among Welsh Conservatives. Sam Rowlands, a lawmaker for North Wales, has encouraged residents to voice their concerns about the plans.

“They are quite rightly very concerned as they believe that pollution is increasing because cars have to drive in a lower gear and wait longer at traffic lights, there have also been more accidents,” he said.

"I do support letting councils put 20 mph speed limits outside schools, hospitals and other areas where evidence shows it’s a benefit, but a blanket 20 mph speed limit across urban roads in Wales is just not right".