20’s plenty – pity nothing rhymes with 50…

I have little difficulty supporting the campaign, and potential Private Member’s Bill in Northern Ireland, for speed limits in residential areas (say, those without road markings and near schools) to be reduced to 20mph (roughly 30kmh).

However, it remains the case that the most dangerous roads in Northern Ireland – and everywhere else in the Western World – are rural secondary roads. Such roads, being outside urban areas, do not look particularly dangerous, but they are not maintained to the same level as primary roads (being typically narrower to start with) and carry the same 60mph (95kmh) limit. As so often in the UK, this is not because the limits were designed that way but because they just ended up that way. My own view is that the limit on rural secondary roads should be reduced to 50mph (80kmh), which has the additional benefit that it could simply be passed through in law and would not require a change to any signage.

The history: initially in the UK roads were either restricted (in urban areas, with a speed limit of 30mph) or de-restricted (outside urban areas, with no speed limit). In the mid-’60s, the UK Government determined that a speed limit even outside urban areas was desirable, and thus changed “de-restricted roads” to being “roads where the national speed limit applies” – hence the white sign with the black strikethrough meaning “End of Restrictions” in most of Europe has come instead to mean “National Speed Limit Applies” in the UK. Initially, the “National Speed Limit” was set at 70mph; a series of changes by the late ’70s saw it reduced on single carriageway roads to 60mph (while still 70mph on dual carriageways including motorways).

Although foreigners get confused by the “National Speed Limit Applies” sign, it does have one distinct advantage that the “National Speed Limit” may be changed at any moment without necessarily having to change the signs. The UK Government was until recently considering raising the limit on motorways only to 80mph, something which could simply be done by determining that it was so – no signs need change.

As it happens, theoretically uniquely among the devolved countries of the UK, speed limits are devolved to Northern Ireland. Legislation has been proposed reducing the limit in residential areas to 20mph (though in fact this would have to be signed, as those areas would never have been “de-restricted” to start with); as I say, I do not oppose this but it does not in fact target the most dangerous roads. I would therefore propose, even in the same legislation, that the “National Speed Limit” on rural secondary roads be reduced to 50mph.

How? You simply state that it is the case. Any road marked with white rather than green (or blue) directional signs is a secondary road, and thus has a 50mph limit. This is in fact almost identical to the situation in the Republic (where secondary roads carry an 80kmh limit and primarily roads 100kmh). The only signs which would need changed would be any already specifically marking a 50mph limit on a secondary road (I am not actually aware of any of these), which would simply need to be removed; there may be a case for amending road markings on some straight stretches of road, for example introducing a hatched centre line (it has been shown that sometimes even the appearance of narrowing causes drivers to reduce speed).

Why? Rural secondary roads are the roads on which fatalities vastly disproportionately occur. Reducing the limit would be a clear nod to that fact and would make it easier to publicise; it would make it easier to stop people travelling at inappropriate/unsafe speed; and it would make it clearer who was at fault on the sad occasions that incidents do occur.

50’s nifty? Nah, it doesn’t work, does it?!

But we should still do it.

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One thought on “20’s plenty – pity nothing rhymes with 50…

  1. Andy Boal says:

    There are a few problems, though, firstly because in Northern Ireland there is no such thing in law as a “National Speed Limit” – we don’t have an equivalent of the 70mph, 60mph, 50mph Temporary Speed Limit Order 1977.

    In GB, it’s lawful in principle to drive a car as fast as you like, but there is no road where you may lawfully drive at more than 70mph. In Northern Ireland, there is no speed limit on any road without a stated speed limit (ie 20/30/40/50/60), but you may not drive a car at more than 60mph on any single carriageway road or at more than 70 on any dual carriageway or motorway – unlike its GB equivalent, the Motor Vehicles (Speed Limits) Regulations (NI) 1989 states specific limits for cars.

    As a result, because what we call the National Speed Limit applies sign simply indicates in Northern Ireland that subject to road conditions you may drive at up to the limit for your class of vehicle, I think that explicit 50 signs would be required.

    The other main problem is altogether more prosaic. Newer primary routes such as the A44 from Clough Mills to Ballycastle are still largely signed with white signs despite having been primary routes for nearly 20 years. Former primary routes such as Belfast Road (Bradshaw’s Brae) from Dundonald to Newtownards are still littered with green signs 30+ years after they ceased to be primary routes. There exist primary routes which are not and never have been trunk roads (a particular status in law) which have green signs due to their strategic importance, such as the A6 from Belfast to Templepatrick.

    Add to the mix signs on primary routes erected before 1994 which show side roads off primary routes as being green, lack of route confirmatory signs on the same side roads, some minor roads having no signage at all, and you end up realising that 50 signs could be essential due to lack of clarity as to what limit is permissible on a given road – but on the other hand, the littering of repeater signs could be addressed.

    As for particular secondary routes… there are routes where drivers could safely drive at 60mph. I’d argue that Ballysallagh Road is one on the long straight, but that requires two things, neither of which I’d argue is a matter of the speed limit: primarily drivers to not carry out dangerous overtaking manoeuvres, but also drivers to drive in such a way that they do not hold up other drivers unnecessarily and tempt them into dangerous manoeuvres.

    We talked about it earlier, but I’m convinced the safety record on that stretch (or indeed on the entire route from the top of the Craigantlet hill climb to the Belfast Road in Bangor) is a question of drivers who do not know how to handle their cars, cannot read the road ahead, or are just plain dangerous, rather than speed.

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