Wales now has its 20 mph speed limit – so how’s it panning out?

Image adapted from succo from Pixabay

Back in December 2022, we published a blog post with the title Life in the slow lane: are you ready for Wales’ 20mph limit?

You could check it out right now (thereby enriching your life almost infinitely), but to summarise, it looks at the pros and cons of the Welsh government’s introduction of new 20 mph limits in residential areas. Yep, we’re a clickbait-free zone.

Since then, the restrictions have come into place, and we figure it’s time for a catch up on how things are going. In this two-parter, we’ll do our best to be even-handed about this controversial change.

Are the 20 mph restrictions being enforced?

Wales’ 20 mph speed restrictions came into effect in September 2023. However, the Welsh government allowed for a ‘bedding in period’ before enforcement began.

That has now come to an end, though there’s some uncertainty over when enforcement actually began. According to BBC News, some reports claim that enforcement began in mid-December. However, a road safety body said this was at the discretion of individual police officers, and that nationwide enforcement would come into effect in early January ‘in some areas‘.

Bamboozled yet? Well, on top of that, there’s a question over under what circumstances the law will be enforced, after Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford commented:

Where people genuinely do not understand that the law has been broken, then they will engage in education with those people, and they will only take enforcement action when they are sure that that is needed to keep roads and communities safe and where the evidence is of wilfully breaking the law.

So, what I said was: where people are genuinely confused, then the system will seek to engage and to educate them.

Where people claim to be confused but there is no evidence that confusion lies at the root of their behaviour, then they cannot expect that enforcement action will not be taken.

And in addition, transport minister Lee Waters has said that for the moment, prosecutions will only start at speeds of over 26mph in a 20mph zone.

Taking this softly-softly approach does have a lot going for it. With a controversial new law, the last thing you want to do is antagonise people with a draconian, take-no-prisoners approach. On the other hand, as Conservative Senedd leader Andrew R T Davies put it, Drakeford’s explanation has left things ‘as clear as mud.’

For the moment, police are emphasising education over punishment, but presumably that won’t last forever. The penalties when they do kick in are set at the usual level: a minimum of £100 fine and three licence penalty points.

What’s been the public reaction to the 20 mph zones?

Take any controversial subject and it’s easy to let your personal bias creep in – especially when it comes to judging how popular or unpopular a viewpoint is.  After all, if you’re massively in favour of something, there’s more chance that your friends are in favour of it too, and that you consume news from sources that are in favour of it. Whereas if you’re against something… well, you get the point.

So, as expected, pro-20 mph restriction sources are quoting pedestrians and cyclists who feel safer, those eager to reap environmental benefits, and people who have tragically lost loved ones in traffic accidents. Conversely, anti-restriction sources are quoting those inconvenienced by lower speeds, tales of weird inconsistencies in speed limits, and people who are generally against government restrictions.

We looked for something a bit more objective, and came across two noteworthy statistics:

  • When the Welsh government were looking at the feasibility of the scheme, research they commissioned showed that about two-thirds of respondents were in favour of a 20 mph speed limit in their own area.
  • However, a petition to repeal the law has now attracted over 400,000 signatures, the largest number ever recorded by the Senedd.

Assuming the two statistics are equally valid, how do we square them?

There’s no doubt that 400,000 is a huge level of protest. There are about 2.6 million people in Wales eligible to sign (i.e., aged 16 and over), which means that about one in six say that they want the law repealed. And given that not everyone who is against the restrictions won’t sign the petition, we suspect that the true level of anti-20 mph feeling is even higher.

But on the other hand, two-thirds of people said they were in favour of 20 mph, and notice that this was in their own neighbourhoods, where we might expect them to go a bit NIMBY. Again, that’s a massive level of support.

What’s most likely is that both figures are true: a really significant part of the Welsh population hate the new limits, but at least as many people are in favour of them. We’re a deeply divided population – like that Brexit thing that you might remember.

Buyer’s remorse?

Or at least, a majority used to be in favour. Could it be that many people thought 20mph was a great idea… up until the moment they were driving at bicycle speeds or sitting in traffic queues? Maybe. Alternatively, this could be the usual initial anger about changes to our lifestyle (like seatbelts, smoking in pubs, etc) – something that settles down after teething problems are solved and everyone gets used to it.

It’s just too early to say which way this will go… we’re just hoping this won’t be out of date by the time it’s published!

To finish this off, next time, we’ll take a look at whether the restrictions are having any impact on how people drive. See you in a fortnight!

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