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SPEED LIMITS - they’re easy! Aren’t they?

Updated: Aug 16, 2022

It's easy enough to ride to the speed limit isn't it? We just have to be aware enough to spot the sign and remember what the limit is.

Or is it?

Here’s a puzzler for you. It’s a simple question. “What is the speed limit across the junction?”

The top photo clearly shows a pair of ’30 / end of 20 zone’ change of speed limit signs.

But just 100 metres ahead in this second photo (we’ve just passed the traffic light visible ahead in the first pic), and on the lamp post just left of centre of the shot, there is equally clearly a ’20’ repeater sign.

Just in case you’re having trouble spotting it, I’ve zoomed in on it in the third photo.

Repeaters, I’ll remind you, are used to remind us of a CONTINUING speed limit, and not to alert us to a CHANGE.

The road to the right is definitely 30, since all the side turnings are marked 20, but what the limit is directly ahead is a bit of a mystery.

My first thought on spotting the repeater was to assume that council have put the wrong type of sign up and the inference is that the turning to the right is 30, but the road ahead reverts to a 20 limit.

But looking more closely, I realised there’s not a matching 20 sign on the other side of the road (I don’t think it’s a legal requirement to put matching signs up but I doubt many drivers know that), but more to the point, there don’t appear to be any signs telling you you’re entering a 30 at the junction approaching from the opposite direction either.

So I THINK the road ahead is 30, but it could be that it’s the 30 > 20 signs that are missing.

Now, how much time do you think I’ve spent scanning that junction to work all that out? And I STILL don’t know what the limit is. And I live near there.

What chance has someone not local to the area, and potentially not used to London traffic got of working out what the limit is on this road?

Now, yesterday I responded to a post on a FaceBook group called ‘Share the Road to Zero’ – although it bills itself as a community group, it appears to be connected to the Northern Ireland Dept for Infrastructure, the police and safety partnerships. The post suggested that since “dual carriageways may have pelican crossings, traffic lights, roundabouts and zebra crossings [it] makes paying attention to speed limits and junctions particularly important”.

It’s one of those seemingly-sage statements that in reality conflates two issues: that the threat posed by the physical hazard (the crossings, lights, junctions) is minimised by travelling at the speed limit.

The argument is, of course, nonsensical. There are many times that the speed limit is actually way too fast. And that means the hazard has to be the determinant of ‘safe speed’.

That’s not to say the speed limit isn’t useful as a general guide – ie, a 30 limit generally implies a built-up area which is likely to have a lot of hazards that are not only close packed and potentially difficult to spot, whilst a 70 limit on a dual carriageway usually means that we’ll see potential issues far enough away to lose that speed when necessary.

But the appropriate answer is to approach every road on its own merits, every single time we drive it. What may have been a sensible speed yesterday probably isn’t a sensible speed today.

But people still make the simplistic assumption that compliance with a speed limit is safer.

I just mentioned the urban 30 limit. Back in what seems an increasingly dim past, you could be reasonably certain if you drove or rode into a zone with street lights, the limit was 30. If it was anything else, there would be signs to advise us, but the limit would be higher than 30 – 40, occasionally even 50. And whilst driving slower than the limit might upset people around us, it wouldn’t expose us to the ire of the local plod holding the speed gun.

But now speed limits are increasingly monitored by cameras and not just conventional speed cameras or camera vans either – I believe local councils now how the power to enforce 20 limits with CCTV footage captured by cars with the same camera on the roof that they use to monitor parking violations.

And of course, the old ‘street lights means 30’ rule is increasingly redundant as more and more roads are turned into 20 limits and zones. And without constantly scanning for speed limit signs, it’s increasingly difficult to remain aware of the current speed limit. And it DOES change with baffling frequency.

And so I thought my comment that “a couple of mph over the limit is likely to make far less difference [to road safety] than failing to spot a hazard because the driver is worried about a speeding ticket and checking the dial too often” was only moderately controversial.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t entirely surprised to be taken to task for my suggestion that the very speed limits themselves – and the threat of rigid enforcement – could be a source of driver distraction since it means we have to drive constantly scanning for changes of limit which aren’t always easy to spot.

The predicted response arrived almost immediately:

“If you can’t spot a change of speed limit, you’re not a very competent driver”.

Or words to those effect. He deleted it soon after when I replied: “if you can spot seemingly random changes of limit with infallibility, you have some kind of superpower”.

Have another look at the top photo, you’ll see that the parked van actually obscured the sign quite neatly – it’s not till we’re almost alongside the sign that it appears from behind the vehicle. What if the limit had been lower rather than higher?

There are possible solutions. I don’t like paint on the road – as a motorcyclist I am aware it’s slippery and a potential hazard in itself. But where there are likely to be issues with parked delivery trucks, I do see a role for the roundels with the limit on painted on the surface, so long as they are non-skid and regularly refreshed. Frankly, it should be part of the rules that 20 limits can only be enforced when there is adequate warning to drivers.

I was also told “keeping an eye on speed limits is simply a part of driving”… well, it is but if people are expected to stick to the limit, there must be ways of making it less difficult to work out what the limits actually are.

And if drivers find discovering and monitoring speed limits and limit changes easier, that’s a one driving task that demands less attention, which means in consequence they have more attention for other driving tasks – such as spotting the crossings and junctions...

...and motorcycles at junctions!

Ironically, since I was accused of wanting to drive at 30, my answer would be make ALL urban roads under street lights 20, so once again we have a simple rule to follow – see streetlights, assume 20.

And if there are to be exceptions, such as the main trunk routes in and out of towns, then change the signing rules so that THEY are the roads that need 30 repeaters – that’s perfectly workable since we do just that for 40s and 50s in street-lit areas. Frankly, the lower limit really wouldn’t bother me half as much as the current half-baked scheme where the constant 20 – 30 – 20 – 30 changes between roads with 20 limits, 20 zones that cover an area and 30 zones that revert when we’re out of the 20s is a nonsense badly in need of an overhaul.

Someone else went on to tell me that it was my fault because the “…only reason you have to concentrate so hard is because you are desperate to do the actual speed limit, just drive below the limit its really easy”. That’s making some big assumptions about the way I drive, but I ignored that and simply pointed out that to do that: “…we still have to know what the speed limit is in the first place to drive below it”. Sometimes, I really wonder where people get their ideas from.

Back came the guy with an even dafter response:

“I use a phone app that flashes the speed in red & tells you the limit all the time”.

I have to admit I couldn’t resist the obvious retort to that:

“So… you’re actually looking at your phone and not at the road. Where’s the hazard? Is it on your phone? Or ahead on the road? I think that pretty much makes the point I put forward earlier today.”

Quite simply, if you’re taking your eyes off the road to check the speed limit on the phone app, you’re not watching the road. QED.

As it happens I also have a phone app for when I’m in the car and it chimes if I’m over the limit. An audible alert makes a lot more sense than a visual one.

Back to the change of limit in the photos. You’ll recall I mentioned the difficulty in spotting seemingly random changes of limit. Even without the apparent sign error, the posted limits here are totally baffling.

Firstly, why INCREASE the limit as the road just as it approaches a busy junction with traffic signals and a pedestrian crossing just the other side? Surely, if the road I approached along warranted a 20 limit, the junction and crossing do, too? It makes even less sense if the 20 zone DOES restart on the far side of the junction. Why not start the 30 limit after the right turn has been completed? Daft.

Secondly, there’s no obvious reason that there should be any difference in speed limit on these three roads. They are all equally busy, and the road directly ahead (the one that apparently returns to 20 but could be 30) and the road to the right (definitely 30) are both busy shopping streets. There’s no obvious reason they both aren’t 20, particularly as they are busier with pedestrians and cyclists than the 20 road I took the photos from.

If there is ANY logic to these speed limits, it escapes me.

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