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.