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Why the idea that communities should set speed limits is flawed

One of the proposals in a review by Baroness Newlove, the Government’s “communities champion”, on how to tackle anti-social behaviour and petty crime is a proposal that communities should be able to set their own speed limits and help catch offenders.

She said it was time for the public to “reclaim their streets” in her first report to the Government.

She highlighted examples in Cambridgeshire, Devon and Cornwall where volunteers are given speed guns and pass the evidence on to the police.

However, I believe the idea that communities should set speed limits is seriously flawed for road safety reasons.

One problem is that we need to differentiate between anti-social behaviour and crime connected with cars and motorbikes and safe speed issues in general.

A second issue is that lower limits should not be seen as a substitute for failing to improve the road infrastructure to improve road safety.

And doing a bit of research reveals that local communities already have the power to set speed limits.

As the system currently stands, the Highways Agency (a division of the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions) is ultimately responsible for setting speed limits, but under the current system the responsibility is delegated locally, to county and district councils, in consultation with the police.

A Local Committee, usually consisting of a combination of County Council and District or Borough Council Elected Members, has the discretion to decide the final speed limit. They will take into account public views presented to them during the statutory consultation process.

In the event of local police and the local council highway officer recommending against the Local Committee’s proposals, the decision is ultimately refered to the Minister.

Any change to the speed limit is subject to review after twelve months when vehicle speeds, the casualty record, and any other safety concerns will be considered. In the event of the speed limit being ineffective, remedial action will be considered.

So the mechanism for local intervention is already there. And in fact, we can see the fruits of that on the scattergun approach to speed limits that litters our rural roads these days, where speed limits change with bewildering rapidity and the signage is wholy inadequate to cope with those changes.

My very own B road was an example. At one point not too long ago when communities first began to agitate for lower limits, the speed limit over a four mile stretch through three villages and across one busy A road crossroads ran:

60 – 30 – 40 – 30 – 60 (for four hundred metres!) – 40 (for 50 metres) – 60 – 40 – 30 – 60 – 40 – 30

The four hundred metre stretch of 60 is now a 40, and some of the other speed limits have coalesced but it’s still difficult to identify some of the 30s and 40s as there’s no clear ‘boundary’ as there would have been in the old days to define the 30 limits.

Another stretch I know well is typical ‘urban sprawl’, with ribbon development leading out along an A road from a major Kent town. At one point along a road with houses, bungalows and the odd small industrial estate evenly distributed along its length, the speed limit drops from 40 to 30.

Is that because of the local school? Nope, the school’s in the 40 section.

It’s simply where the parish boundary lies. One parish has been more vocal than the other in committees and they got the speed limit dropped through ‘their’ part of the sprawl.

When it comes to arming the locals with the powers to set and police their own speed limits, it’s pretty obvious that it’s something that will favour the most well-heeled rural communities, the most vocal, savvy and well connected.

It’s already quite noticable that many 20 limits lie through twee rural villages where children play safely in huge gardens, whilst the densely populated estates where kids are far more likely to be playing in the street have no such lower limit.

I can’t see how giving communities MORE powers to speak for themselves will redress that imbalance of people power.

And unless we have improved speed limit signing, simply handing speed guns and the powers to use them over to local communities who’ve managed to get a 20 limit enforced is going to be akin to giving them the weapons to shoot fish in a barrel!

But there’s a broader picture that’s missing here. It’s teaching everyone to respect others’ communities, not simply allowing them to be walled off ghetto-style with artificially low limits and a ‘Home Guard’ of pensioners waving radar guns at anyone who dares enter their corner of little England.

And ‘everyone’ must include those campaigners themselves when they are off their own patch.

Some years ago, I reported a story here on the blog where a vocal campaigner for local lower limits left home and was promptly nailed well over the limit by a speed camera in an adjacent village. The same fate befell a senior police officer who was outspoken on the evils of speeding. That’s the respect for other communities that’s missing in too much concern over “local issues”.

Ironic, really.

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