Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Ninth Report

Road engineering, speed limits and road classification


69. Almost every witness told us that our speed limits are a mess. Speed limits need to be lower on many roads, and higher on others.[120] The problems, which witnesses identified, are that:

- drivers often do not know what the speed limit is (as we have seen);

- speed limits are often not appropriate for the road;[121] and

- the system of road classification is out of date.

The failure to set and enforce the right speed limits is a major factor in deaths and injuries, and in particular in the high pedestrian casualty rate in urban areas.

70. Current guidance to local authorities about how to set speed limits does not take sufficient account of safety and has led to limits higher than is safe. The guidance is given in Circular 1/93. It is set by reference to the speed of the traffic travelling along the road, and is based on the speed of the 85th percentile of vehicles, ie the speed up to which 85% of traffic is travelling.[122] The existing classification of roads (A, B, and "C and Unclassified roads") is, as the Government stated in March 2000, "not appropriate for speed management purposes since those designations define routes rather than the nature or function of the road or its relative safety".[123]


71. A new system of speed limits is required. Ideally they should:

- be understood, consistent, respected; and

- take into account a wider range of factors than the speed of the traffic, including the need to protect all road users.

In its Road Safety Strategy in March 2000, the Government promised significant changes along these lines. These were to:

- create a "national framework for determining appropriate vehicle speeds on all roads, and ensuring that measures are available to achieve them".[124]

- revise its "guidance to local authorities on the setting of local speed limits to achieve appropriate and consistent standards nationally to reflect, as far as possible, the needs of all road users on different classes of roads"[125];

- in rural areas, "develop a new hierarchy of roads defined by their function and quality, which combine flexibility at local level with consistency nationally"[126]; and

- in urban areas, in the longer term "develop an urban hierarchy of roads to provide clearer guidance in this area, in a similar manner to that proposed for rural roads".[127]

72. Unfortunately the Government has not undertaken most of these tasks and failed to complete any. There has been a report on a rural road hierarchy but it failed to provide an immediate and implementable solution.[128] A major problem is that the proposed changes to date have been too complicated.

73. Despite the problems there is sufficient evidence to indicate that a new system of speed limits is required as a matter of urgency. They are best set, as at present, by local authorities following national guidance. A national framework for speed assessment and a new classification of the urban and rural road network could describe in more detail how those limits should be applied. The Government should publish as a priority revised Guidance to local authorities on setting local speed limits and principles for speed management. The Guidance should also offer information on the range of interventions available to local authorities to act as preventative measures in advance of crashes and injuries occurring. Local authorities should subsequently be guided by a national framework for determining appropriate vehicle speeds on roads and by a new hierarchy of roads defined by their function and quality in urban and rural areas.


74. According to a significant number of witnesses there are four main types of road which are wrongly classified or where existing speed limits are unsatisfactory. They are those in some villages, in country lanes, on single carriageway A and B roads, and in urban areas. The key issues raised by witnesses in the inquiry were whether the speed limit:

- on urban residential roads should be 20 or 30 mph

- should be a 20 mph limit outside schools

- in villages should be 30 mph

- in country lanes should be 40 mph

- on single carriage A and B roads 50 or 60 mph.

There was little pressure from witnesses for a change in motorway limit.[129]

75. We recommend that the following guidance on speed limits be issued to local authorities. We discuss below the rationale for these limits.

Proposed guidance to local authorities re speed limits for cars

Limit Type of Road



20 mph

Many residential areas, some mixed routes, vicinity of schools

vicinity of schools

30 mph

Main roads


40 mph

Major outer urban roads

'C' and Unclassified roads*

50 mph

Poorer quality 'A' and 'B' roads

60 mph

Good quality single carriageway 'A' roads

70 mph

Dual carriageway

*Some current 'C' roads should become 'B' roads

76. Changing speed limits will achieve little by itself. The TRL informed us that speed limits were not effective unless the road is designed for lower speeds: a reduction in the limit without supporting measures by itself typically only leads to a very small reduction in average speed.[130] The supporting measures include:

- a design which indicates the speed limit; the IHT noted that "roads need to look as though motorists should drive along them at the appropriate speed";[131]

- engineering which enforces the speed limit; and

- improved signs.

77. Traffic calming measures have been very effective, as evidence from Nottingham indicates[132]:

Type of Traffic Calming

Mean Speed in MPH

% Reduction in Casualties



Round Top

Road Humps

(18 schemes)




1.9m square Cushions

(19 schemes)




8m Plateau

(7 schemes)




Traffic calming can be used both to enforce both 30 mph limits and lower 20 mph limits.

78. There have been problems with traffic calming. Some speed humps can cause excessive noise and isolated calming measures can cause traffic to be displaced to surrounding areas. However, there is now very considerable experience of different types of calming measures, and suitable ones can be chosen for each situation; for instance, speed cushions are often used on bus routes.[133] Displacement can be avoided if measures are employed over a whole area. Traffic calming has been unpopular with some motorists, but, according to the evidence submitted to the inquiry, these views were not representative of public opinion.[134]

79. On some roads where it has not been possible to design the roads in a way which indicates the speed limit, or install traffic calming, it is necessary to use speed limit signs. This could mean using repeat signs in 30 mph limit zones where they are not currently permitted. Mr Silcock proposed that signs give a reason for the limit, particularly where it may not be obvious to the driver. The derestricted sign which signals the national speed limit (60 mph for single carriage way roads, 70 mph for dual carriageways and motorways) is not widely recognised; several witnesses proposed that it should be replaced by signs which indicate what the limit is. Repeat signs should be permitted in 30 mph zones where the speed limit is not apparent from the design of the road or cannot be enforced by traffic calming. The 'derestricted' sign should be relaced by a sign indicating what the speed limit is.

Urban areas

80. There is now a wealth of experience to show the effects of measures to reduce speed in towns and cities. TRL refers to evidence that the low instance of low speed limits in the UK and of measures to reduce speed contributed to the high pedestrian casualty rate here compared with other European countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden.[135] Cities such as Gloucester, Hull and York have shown that similar results can be achieved in England. The main contrast between the situation in England and the Netherlands is the extent of 30 kph zones (under 20 mph) in the Netherlands.[136] In Hull, where they have been widely applied, well-engineered 20mph zones have achieved reductions in injury accidents of:

Total accidents  -56%

Killed & seriously injured accidents-90%

Accidents involving child casualties-64%

All pedestrian accidents-54%

Child pedestrian accidents-74%

The reason for these reductions "is simply because of the reductions in average vehicle speeds which 20mph zones enforce through their engineering measures".[137]

81. Several witnesses thought that the speed limit on the majority of roads in built-up areas should be 20 mph.[138] In New Directions in Speed Management the DTLR concluded that 30 mph was the appropriate speed limit for urban areas, but the Government is committed to an expansion of the use of 20 mph zones and ACPO supports such zones.[139] The only uncertainty is about how extensively they should be employed. The Government should encourage local authorities to make more use of 20 mph zones, enforced by suitable engineering measures. The measures should be area wide to avoid displacement. They should concentrate on accident prevention and improving the quality of life, and should not be only introduced as an ad hoc response to serious crashes.

Home Zones

82. Another measure which reduces speed, increases safety and improves the quality of life is the home zone. It usually consists of redesigning streets to make them places for people rather than traffic; speeds are reduced to 10 mph.[140] Home zones have been very effective in Denmark, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands in reducing speeds, increasing pedestrian safety and creating an agreeable ambience for those walking, playing or chatting in the street.[141] In the UK too the initial evidence is that home zones are proving to be a success. In the first of the Government's pilot zones at Northmoor Manchester average speeds have fallen to 9.8 mph as a result of "a combination of traffic calming, staggered parking to break up driver's sight lines and good design".[142] We recommend that the Government publish the results of the home zone pilot projects as soon as possible. If successful, the Government should fund them and support their widespread introduction.

The Gloucester 'Safer City Project'

83. The Gloucester 'Safer City Project' went beyond the area wide approach. It was a scheme to improve the safety of roads in the whole city. It took a preventative, not a reactive approach to road safety.[143] The main focus was on engineering and the reclassification of routes, but it was backed up by education, publicity, training and enforcement[144]. A hierarchy of measures was established with —

- at the highest level — a network of roads that remained through routes;

- then mixed use — these were routes which usually predated the motor car but did not have the capacity or alignment to be suitable as through routes but were carrying a significant amount of traffic. Physical measures were taken to reduce traffic speed. Vulnerable road users were given a higher priority than on main roads.

- the remaining roads were essentially to be access only.

The project reduced serious injuries and deaths by over one third and adult pedestrian casualties by 22 per cent and child pedestrian casualties by 13 per cent. A similar city-wide approach has been employed in York. Following the success of the Gloucester 'Safer City Project', the Government should ensure that similar projects are introduced into towns and cities throughout the country.

Mixed use routes

84. An important part of the Gloucester Safer City Project was the treatment of mixed use routes. As TRL noted on many urban roads the segregation of pedestrians and motor vehicles is not possible. They require redesigning and 'speed limiting' measures.[145] Many of the most dangerous urban roads have to be used by both pedestrians and motor vehicles. Guidance to local authorities should recommend that particular care is taken to ensure that these routes are suitably engineered to enforce the speed limit. Local authorities would be assisted in this task if the Government were to develop its proposed 'urban hierarchy of roads'. The Government must now establish the 'Urban Road Hierarchy' which it promised in its Road Safety Strategy in March 2000.


85. Because of the high child pedestrian casualty rates, and the effect of speed on children's mobility and quality of life, a number of witnesses including the Traffic and Children Coalition, called for "well-enforced 20 mph speed limits around all schools and parks" as "an important part in redressing the balance in favour of children on our streets".[146] It would not only reduce the danger to children but also make it easier for them to cycle to school as many wish. We recommend that guidance to local authorities indicate that a 20 mph limit should be the norm in the vicinity of schools in urban and rural areas during the day on weekdays, though they should have the ability to vary the limits at other times.

Rural areas

86. There are three types of rural roads where it is particularly important that speeds fall:

- in villages;

- on country lanes, ie C class and Unclassified roads; and

- on some badly designed 'A' and B roads.

There is a very strong demand for lower speed limits. However, there are fewer examples of good practice in rural than urban areas, so it will be necessary to undertake a number of pilot projects to examine the best means of enforcing them.


87. The Government's Road Safety Strategy proposed that 30 mph be the norm for villages, but according to some witnesses little has occurred since to make this happen. Consultants Steer Davis Gleave have examined the road safety policies of 30 rural local authorities and found that fewer than one in five had or were intending to introduce a policy of 30 mph for all villages.[147]

88. The DETR saw the main problems in instituting 30 mph limits in villages as:

- how to ensure a 30 mph limit is obeyed;

- how to do this without creating clutter and ugliness; and

- how to define a village.

These are poor excuses for not issuing guidance to local authorities. Traffic calming will often be necessary to enforce the limit, particularly on the approaches to small towns and villages. In some places vehicle-activated signs may need to be employed, as the IHIE proposed: these are "traffic signals just within speed limit zones which are triggered by speeding vehicles, forcing them to stop".[148] Although traffic calming, signs and traffic lights are often unsightly, these effects can be mitigated in various ways. Schemes should be installed as sensitively possible. There is already a great deal of unnecessary clutter in villages, and when traffic calming is introduced many unnecessary existing signs could be removed. New signs to indicate 30mph limits could be incorporated into the village sign.[149] As in some Norfolk villages, speeds can be reduced by removing road markings and clutter.[150]

89. 30 mph limits have already been successfully introduced in villages throughout Suffolk. The County Council established 450 new 30 mph limits in two years, producing a 20% reduction in accidents.[151] Guidance to local authorities on speed limits should recommend that there be a 30 mph limit in villages. Appropriate measures should be taken by the local authority in consultation with the villagers to ensure the limit is obeyed. They should also decide which settlements are villages. There has been some concern about the slow progress of the Highways Agency in introducing 30 mph limits in villages on its part of the network. We consider this below.[152]

C Roads and Unclassified roads

90. In New Directions in Speed Management the DETR stated

"The one aspect of the national speed limit system that comes in for most criticism is the notion that 60 mph is a reasonable maximum speed on country lanes".[153]

However, the Department decided that with the information at hand it was not possible to set a lower national limit. Country lanes could not be legally defined and speed signs would be intrusive. If set too low respect for limits as a whole would be diminished. These arguments were not considered convincing by those who submitted evidence to the inquiry. Many memoranda which we received reflected the view that there have to be lower limits on country lanes. These could be readily defined as C and Unclassified roads. A limit of 40 mph would curb the worst excesses and provide a little more safety for those taking a stroll, or riding or cycling. We recommend that guidance to local authorities indicate that 40 mph be the speed limit on C and Unclassified roads. Research should be undertaken into the best ways of enforcing such a limit. Some of the better quality, wider C and Unclassified (where a higher speed is appropriate) might be reclassified as B roads. If a 40 mph limit were introduced on minor roads it may be possible to increase the limit for HGVs on A and B roads from the present 40 mph.

A and B roads

91. There is some dissatisfaction with the national speed limit (60 mph) on single carriageway main roads. It is inappropriate on many roads, and there is a strong case for lower limits on poor quality A and B roads.[154] Some local authorities, such as Gloucestershire County Council, are increasingly introducing 50 mph limits on lower grade 'A' and busy 'B' class roads in the county.[155] Already, many people do not know what the national speed limit is or what the sign which indicates it means. The piecemeal adoption of 50 mph limits on dangerous roads will only add to the confusion. Guidance to local authorities should include advice about which types of single carriageway main roads should have a 60 mph limit and which the lower 50 mph limit. The sign which currently indicates the national speed limit should be scrapped; road signs should indicate what the actual speed limit is.

A Rural Road Hierarchy

92. If local authorities are to establish a speed limit of 30 mph in all villages, and 40 mph on C class and unclassified roads, they need to undertake detailed analysis of both usage and traffic flow along their roads, and makes changes to the design of some roads. In some places more effective enforcement is required. They would be greatly assisted in this task if the Government were to produce a Rural Road Hierarchy (ie a re-classification of the road system) which it promised in its Road Safety Strategy and which many witnesses recommended. It is a feasible task, and has already been undertaken in Devon.[156] However, the working group it established decided that a "system of different speed limits would be costly financially and in terms of environmental intrusion".[157] The Government now has a project to develop practical speed management measures on rural roads and has identified the need for more information before "we can properly assess the case for lower rural speed limits". The Government should now make every effort to introduce the Rural Road Hierarchy it promised over two years ago. There are fewer examples of good practice in rural than in urban areas: there should be pilot projects in rural areas comparable to the Gloucester Safer City project.

Dual carriageways and Motorways.

93. In Tomorrow's roads - safer for everyone the Government decided that motorway and dual carriageway speed limits would be kept at 70mph for cars, but compliance be improved.[158] A few witnesses, for instance Green Speed, called for a lower speed limit on the grounds that lives would be saved and carbon dioxide emissions reduced; on the other hand, others, for example the RAC Foundation, argued that the there should be a variable 80 mph limit on motorways (ie 80 mph in good conditions and lower in bad).[159] It is alleged that the Home Secretary would also prefer such a limit; in oral evidence to us the Parliamentary Under Secretary in the Home Office gave the impression that this was the case. He was asked:

"Is it true that the Home Secretary wants an 80 mph limit on motorways?"

He replied:

"I think the Committee would be very surprised if Ministers, if any ministers came into a situation and simply accepted the handed-down version of what was right and proper without first of all questioning it..."

Moreover, the situation is, according to the same Minister, to be kept under review.[160]

94. In contrast the great majority of witnesses, including ACPO, TRL, the AA, and the Minister for Transport, thought that the existing limit should be retained. It is likely that more people would die or be seriously injured if it were raised (in 1998 1475 people were killed or seriously injured on motorways). In the United States "increases in the national speed limit have been shown clearly to be associated with increases in fatalities".[161] Casualties, including deaths and serious injuries, on the motorways might be expected to increase by 5 to 10%. A DTLR offical explained to us why there would be more deaths if there were to be an 80 mph limit First, average speeds would be higher than at present: "there is an estimate of perhaps 2.5-5 mph increase in the mean speed";[162] when incidents occurred drivers would have even less time to react; and therefore more people would die. Secondly, unless the limit for lorries were raised the difference between the speed of lorries and cars, itself a cause of crashes, would widen. Moreover, we were told that higher speeds would do little to reduce journey times; on the congested motorways of England an 80 mph limit might well increase them because it would create an uneven flow.


95. New Directions in Speed Management observes that "another difficulty for local traffic authorities is the time and cost involved in making individual speed limit orders" to change speed limits.[163] The Transport Act 2000 made some changes, giving authorities the power to designate any road a quiet lane or home zone with a speed limit of 10 mph. However, it is excessively costly and time-consuming to make other changes. For instance, Gloucestershire County council told us that it was impractical to raise Orders to change the limits on country lanes.[164] PACTS recommended the introduction of a simplified procedure for making speed limit orders.[165] The Government should make it easier for local authorities to make changes to the speed limit on roads. It should introduce a simplified procedure for making speed limit orders.

Local autonomy

96. The Government should ensure that guidelines should not be in a form that discourages local authorities from taking appropriate decisions to reflect local circumstances.


97. The cost of measures such as traffic calming to re-engineer our roads to save lives, reduce injuries, encourage healthy modes of travel and improve the quality of life would not be that large. Several years ago TRL estimated that a comprehensive package of measures in urban areas would cost £3bn: this figure is a small fraction of the expenditure in the Ten Year Plan. TRL's findings were that:

"Taken together, traffic calming schemes and area wide safety management schemes have the potential to prevent 25% of all casualties in urban areas if fully applied. TRL's estimate is that the potential casuhalty savings are 50,000 a year, or some 16% of the 1995 overall casualty total. A programme to produce this level of saving would cost a total of 3,000m,...One third of the savings would be pedestrians".[166]

The BMA also stressed the scale of the savings which could be achieved:

"the initial costs can be high but savings are possible in the long run through prevention of injuries and resulting care and rehabilitation costs...A decrease in the amount of these injuries would reduce the burden on the NHS to treat them. Moreover, by making roads safer, the public are more likely to cycle and walk therefore realising the health benefits of doing so".[167]

In 1997 the TRL estimated that a comprehensive package of traffic calming measures in urban areas would cost £3bn. We recommend that this estimate be updated and that an estimate be made of the cost of measures to reduce casualties in rural areas be undertaken with a view to providing the funds in the Ten Year Plan. We note that the sum is likely to be less than the funds proposed for safety improvements on the railways, but spending it would save many, many more lives than are lost on the railways every year. Safety should be a priority for all modes of transport.

120   RTS 48. Back

121   ACPO (RTS 137) informed us: "There is no doubt that the public fails to see the logic of many individual speed limits. ACPO shares this concern". IHIE's views were typical. The organisation "believes that speed limits must be seen as reasonable and appropriate to encourage willing compliance. A consistency of approach is need" RTS 33). Back

122   Many witnesses argued that there was a need to take into account many more factors than this. The Slower Speeds Initiative informed us: "Speed limits have historically been determined by driver acceptability or by reference to a combination of factors such as road geometry and traffic flows....There is no reason why the factors that lead drivers to choose particular speeds should result in levels of speed that are preferable from the point of view of society as a whole" (RTS 34A). Back

123   Tomorrow's Roads, p. 50. Back

124   Tomorrow's Roads, p. 48 Back

125   Tomorrow's Roads, p. 49. Back

126   Tomorrow's Roads, p. 50. Back

127   Tomorrow's Roads, p. 51. Back

128   See Annex 7, DTLR memo (RTS 49). Back

129   A few wanted a change: Green Speed argued for a 55mph national speed limit which would save lives and reduce pollution (RTS 3); in contrast, the RAC Foundation wanted a variable 80 mph limit (RTS 6). Back

130   RTS 27. Back

131   The AA stated that "speed limits should be reconciled to the character of the road (and vice versa)". The "... key lies in finding the right speed limit for each stretch of road." The organisation added that "all speed limits should be reviewed in a formal programme with a timetable and a budget. Getting the right speed on the right road is the single most pressing road safety issue - the benefits of a review are more than proportionate to the costs". Drivers need to be able to easily realise what the speed limit is (RTS 48). As Professor Stradling pointed out, this means first and foremost that the design and type of road must reflect the speed limit (RTS 45). The RAC supported this idea which is often described as the "the self-explaining" road (RTS 6). Back

132   RTS 9. Back

133   Nottingham City Council noted that the fire service, ambulance service and bus operators will only support the use of cushions on the strategic emergency routes and bus routes (RTS 9). Back

134   See RTS 47; for instance, a recent poll by MORI for the Commission for Integrated Transport found that 68% of those questioned would like to see traffic calming measures in residential areas compared to 19% who opposed this" Back

135   RTS 27. Back

136   Moreover, in the Netherlands, it is proposed that up to 90% of urban roads will be subject to a 30kph limit (RTS 34) Back

137   Hull City Council memo (RTS 152). Back

138   The call for more widespread 20 mph limits in urban areas was common. The Government's conclusion that the urban speed limit should remain at 30 mph was criticised on safety and other grounds. It was argued that too much of the DETR's analysis was based on the effects of free flowing traffic. Back

139   ACPO "fully supports the recent introduction of the 20 mph limit and [has] retested all equipment to ensure that we can enforce it" (RTS 137). Back

140   RTS49,DTLR states:"The aim is to change the way streets are used to improve the quality of life by making them places for people, not just for traffic. This usually includes design measures to reduce vehicle speeds to below 10 mph. The road space is shared between motorised traffic and other road users and the design of schemes takes account of the wider needs of residents and those on foot or bicycle, and particularly children" DTLR added that "whilst home zones may confer road safety benefits they are not primarily road safety measures" (DTLR 49).

RTS 40 outlines the philosophy of the home zone concept:

"For many years, the emphasis in highway engineering has been placed on design measures to separate vehicles from pedestrians...the familiar street furniture of kerbs, barriers, road markings, traffic islands and pedestrian crossings all underpin such segregation...Home Zones represent a fundamental challenge to the principle of segregation, encouraging the integration of vehicles with a wide range of social activities through the use of shared space...

A key principle to changing the behaviour of drivers and improving safety for pedestrians involves a clear distinction between two types of road. On the one side are.. [roads] designed solely for the efficient movement of vehicles between places.....At the other end of the spectrum...most urban roads serve a multitude of functions...The residential mews or cul-de-sac is the extreme example". Back

141   RTS 34. Back

142   RTS 8. Back

143   Gloucester Safer City, DTLR, June 2001; and see Gloucestershire evidence (RTS 25).  Back

144   An agreement with the police guaranteed a minimum level of enforcement. Speeding tickets quadrupled. Back

145   RTS 27. Back

146   RTS 47 Back

147   The consultants were commissioned by the CPRE (RTS 31). Back

148   RTS 33. Back

149   RTS 31. Back

150   RTS 34. Back

151   RTS 31. Back

152   See below section on Highways Agency. Back

153   New Directions in Speed Management, DETR, March 2000, p. 26. Back

154   ACPO saw a case for lower national limits, particularly in relation to single carriageway rural roads. Back

155   RTS 25. Back

156   RTS 34. Back

157   DTLR memo, annex 7 (RTS 49). Back

158   Tomorrow's roads, p. 50. Back

159   RTS 3, RTS 6. Back

160   The Home Secretary's views were reported in Local Transport Today,; for the Minister's comments see QQ466-7. Back

161   RTS 27. Back

162   Q380. Back

163   New Directions in Speed Management, p. 27. Back

164   RTS 25. Back

165   RTS 14. Back

166   Road Safety Strategy: Current problems and future options, DETR, October 1997, p. 33. Back

167   RTS 150. Back

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