I’ve just been posting over on Facebook (you DO follow my FB page don’t you – if not, you can visit it a www.facebook.com/survivalskills) about how here in East Kent, it seems there’s been another round of tweaking speed limits. In the last few days, I’ve noticed a number of national speed limits are now 50s, I think one 50 has dropped to a 40 and locally a stretch of “urban fringe” 40 is now a 30.
I don’t actually disagree with that last change (even though not that long ago at least part of this road was a national limit) as at least it brings some consistency to the speed limits along the road. It used to start at 30, go up to 40 and back to 30 in around a mile and the speed limit changed, not because of any real variation in the density or type of buildings at the side of the road, but because of the parish boundary – one parish had fought for a reduction, the other hadn’t. In my opinion, 30 isn’t so bad particularly as the old 40 stretch ran past the local school awkwardly situated on top of a blind bend on top of a hill.
Nor are all the reductions on rural roads entirely a bad thing, at least when the traffic is heavy.
But outside the peak hours, it can mean that we’re now stuck with an unreasonably low limit. Where some years ago, it became the habit to stick a solid line for miles down a road where it was perfectly possible for a bike (at least) to overtake a slower vehicle to cater for the hours when traffic was heavier and overtaking corresponding more difficult and more likely to go wrong, more recently the tendency seems to be to prevent overtaking by taking away the legal use of speed.
I’m sure you’ve noticed from last weeks Parliamentary Questions (what, you mean you DON’T read parliamentary questions?) the poser by Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): “The Dutch now have two thirds of their minor rural road network covered by speed restrictions of 40 mph approximately, as they found those even more effective than 20 mph approximately zones in urban areas. Will the Minister please confirm that he will take this evidence into account when drafting the forthcoming guidance on setting speed limits and set out what other measures should be taken to protect rural cyclists?”
Norman Baker’s reply: “I am happy to confirm that the Department is giving local councils much more freedom in how they use the road network, including the classification of roads and the speed limits that are set. I hope that my hon. Friend will be aware of the extra freedom for 20 mph limits, in particular. Her point on 40 mph limits is well made and I will ensure that my fellow Transport Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), is made aware of her comments when he returns.”
It’s not a new topic for Sarah Wollaston, who as a regular cyclist was reported speaking in a parliamentary debate back in February on the exact same 40mph issue. She says statistics show 60mph rural “A” roads are up to ten times more dangerous per mile than roads in the city and that 11 people from her Totnes constituency had been killed or seriously injured while cycling between 2005 and 2010. She said: “The Conservative MP said the Netherlands is changing speed limits to the equivalent of 40mph on its rural network. By contrast, ministers are considering increasing speed limits.”
First of all, I think it’s disengenous to link the possible increase in speed limits being looked at for motorways where cyclists aren’t allowed to cycle to the situation on rural roads.
Secondly, a moment’s thought will show that the problems of the narrow, twisty and hilly A roads surrounded by high hedges that restrict views in her Devon constituency are very different from the flat, open roads that cover much of the Netherlands, where cyclists have their own cycleways alongside the road. I’d love to see any evidence that even begins to suggest what works in the Netherlands could be translated to the UK.
Nevertheless, don’t doubt that recreational riding and driving is under fire. A senior North Wales policeman said just a few years ago that riding motorbikes through the Snowdonia National Park was incompatible with its national park status. The green lobby wants recreational driving in all its forms discouraged because of its impact on fuel consumption and emmissions.
So it is important we don’t give ammunition to those who want to kick bikes out of the national parks or throttle them back to a crawl and that everyone using our rural roads treats them as a cooperative venture.
Pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders are vulnerable on some rural roads with poor views and it’s certainly important that as riders of powered vehicles ourselves we take that into account, yet it’s my belief that as a group we often don’t give enough thought to that.
True, we’re taught from CBT upwards that pedestrians, cyclists, horse riders and farm vehicles will use rural roads, but we learn they are a ‘hazard’ and so we come to treat them in the same ‘inanimate’ way as a bend or a bad road surface, something to deal with by slowing down only when we absolutely have to.
I think a degree of sympathy for these other slower road users is important – big groups of bikes on the prowl do spook horses and intimidate our more vulnerable road users. When we finally got off the busy, lorry-clogged (even on a weekend) A roads on a group ride last Sunday, I was know I was riding rather more slowly round some of the blind bends on the country lanes than they expected or wanted to ride themselves, but come across cyclists and horses out enjoying the brief sunny intervals between the showers we did.
Rural roads are a compromise – they’re designed to carry everything from pedestrians, cyclists, horses, farm vehicles, delivery vehicles and people driving cars and riding bikes, carrying people to places of work and in the course of that work as well as people using the roads for recreational purposes.
Equally they are a place that has traditionally been available for the recreational use of car drivers and motorcycle riders. And for all those reasons speed limits should remain a compromise, a compromise that is not skewed in favour of one class of road user at the expense of another. But remember – every time we nail it round a bend thinking only of how much fun we’re having and spook a horse or scare a pedestrian, we’re fuelling the more rabid anti-bike and anti-car lobby, and they do have powerful voices.