Road speed limits in the United Kingdom
Road speed limits in the United Kingdom are used to define the maximum legal speed limit (which may be variable) for road vehicles using public roads in the UK, and are one of the measures available to attempt to control traffic speeds. The speed limit in each location is indicated on a nearby traffic sign or by the presence of street lighting. Signs show speed limits in miles per hour (mph) or use of the national speed limit (NSL) symbol.
Since 1965 the maximum speed limit on any UK road has been 70 mph (113 km/h). This limit now only applies to otherwise unrestricted motorways and dual-carriageways, and only to cars (including car-derived vans) up to 2 tonnes maximum laden weight (MLW), to motorcycles, to buses, coaches and minibuses up to 12 metres (39 ft) in length and to goods vehicles not exceeding 7.5 tonnes MLW.
Speed limits in the UK are used to define maximum desirable traffic speeds for the purposes of road safety (to reduce the number of road casualties), to reduce negative environmental impacts of traffic, to increase fuel use efficiency and to satisfy local community wishes.
Enforcement of UK road speed limits was traditionally done using police 'speed traps' set up and operated by the police who now increasingly use speed guns, automated in-vehicle systems and automated roadside traffic cameras. Some vehicle categories have various lower maximum limits enforced by speed limiters.
Ever since they have been introduced, speed limits have been controversial. They have either been opposed or supported from various sources; including motoring advocacy groups, anti-motoring groups and others who either consider them to be irrelevant, set too low or set too high.
- 1 Current regulations
- 2 Types of speed limit
- 3 Justification
- 4 Effectiveness
- 5 Enforcement
- 6 Advocacy
- 7 History
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
National speed limits
Default maximum speed limits apply to all roads where no specific lower numeric speed limit is already in force. The default speed limit is known as the national speed limit (NSL). The NSLs vary by road type and for vehicle types.
|Built-up area||Single carriageway||Dual carriageway||Motorway|
|Cars and motorcycles (including car-derived vans up to 2 tonnes max laden weight)||30 mph (48 km/h)||60 mph (97 km/h)||70 mph (113 km/h)||70 mph (113 km/h)|
|Vehicles towing caravans or trailers
inc cars, motorcycles, goods vehicles up to 7.5 tonnes MLW
|30 mph (48 km/h)||50 mph (80 km/h)||60 mph (97 km/h)||60 mph (97 km/h)|
|Buses, coaches, minibuses up to 12 metres (39 ft)
Goods vehicles up to 7.5 tonnes MLW
|30 mph (48 km/h)||50 mph (80 km/h)||60 mph (97 km/h)||70 mph (113 km/h)|
|Goods vehicles over 7.5 tonnes MLW||30 mph (48 km/h)||40 mph (64 km/h)||50 mph (80 km/h)||60 mph (97 km/h)|
Some classes of vehicles are required to have speed limiters which enforce a maximum speed by physical means. Older vehicles still in use do not have limiters fitted or have them set at a higher speeds. New vehicles should be fitted with limiters as follows:
Types of speed limit
Fixed speed limits
Speed limit road signs are used to inform road users where speed limits other than the applicable national speed limit apply. For some types vehicles on some types of road speed limits lower than the signed limit apply.
|Signed||Vehicle type||Speed limit if other than signed|
|Single carriageway||Dual carriageway||Motorway|
|50||Goods vehicles over 7.5 tonnes MLW||40 mph (64 km/h)|
|60||Any Vehicle under 7.5 tonnes towing caravans or trailers; buses, coaches and minibuses up to 12 metres (39 ft) and Goods vehicles up to 7.5 tonnes MLW||50 mph (80 km/h)|
|Goods vehicles over 7.5 tonnes MLW||40 mph (64 km/h)||50 mph (80 km/h)|
|70||Buses, coaches and minibuses up to 12 metres (39 ft) and Goods vehicles up to 7.5 tonnes MLW (modern vehicles also have speed limiters which limit speed further - see below)||n/a||60 mph (97 km/h)|
|Cars, motorcycles and Goods vehicles up to 7.5 tonnes MLW and towing caravans or trailers||n/a||60 mph (97 km/h)||60 mph (97 km/h)|
|Goods vehicles over 7.5 tonnes MLW||n/a||50 mph (80 km/h)||60 mph (97 km/h)|
Variable speed limits
Variable speed limits are used on some major traffic roads. These can be changed in response to weather, traffic levels, time of day or for other reasons with the currently applicable speed limit is displayed using an electronic road sign. Signs with the speed shown in a red circle are compulsory, signs where the speed is not within a red circle are advisory and exceeding these speeds while driving safely within the applicable national speed limit is not in itself an offence. Variable speed limits were introduced on some congested major routes as an element of controlled motorway techniques to improve traffic flows for given prevailing conditions.
Part-time variable speed limits may also be used outside schools.
Minimum speed limits
Rarely, minimum speed limits are used, such as through the Mersey Tunnels. Circular blue signs with white numbers indicate the start of these limits, and similar signs with a red diagonal line indicate their end.
According to the government, speed limits are used to help achieve appropriate traffic speeds for safety, and environmental and accessibility reasons. The Department for Transport state that "speed limits play a fundamental role" in the effective management of traffic speeds in relation to the safety of both drivers and all other road users.
The 30 mph speed limit in built-up areas was introduced in 1930 in response to high casualty levels. The 70 mph limit on previously unrestricted roads was introduced in 1965 following a number of serious motorway accidents in fog earlier the same year.
The Department for Transport believes that effective speed management involves many components but that speed limits play a 'fundamental role' and are 'a key source of information to road users' particularly as an indicator of the nature and risks posed by that road to both themselves and other motorised and non-motorised road users.
The Parliamentary Select Committee for Transport Safety published a report entitled 'The Ending the Scandal of Complacency' in 2007 which highlighted how casualty levels rise with increasing speed and recommended reducing speed limits on streets with high pedestrian populations and on dangerous rural roads. The report highlights that when two cars crash at 60 mph a driver there is a 90% chance of death which falls to 65% at 50 mph. While recommending 20 mph speed zones the committee noted that these zones 'should not rely on heavy-handed enforcement measures'.
The World Health Organisation published a report in 2004 highlighting that a total of 22% of all 'injury mortality' worldwide were from road traffic injuries in 2002[n 3] and that the speed of vehicles was 'at the core of the problem[n 4] Road incidents are said to be the leading cause of deaths among children 10 – 19 years of age (260,000 children die a year, 10 million are injured).
In 2008 14% of collisions reported to the police had a speed related contributory factor (either "exceeding the speed limit" or "travelling too fast for conditions") reported rising to 24% for fatal accidents and 25% of all road deaths.[n 5] "Exceeding the speed limit" was reported as a contributory factor in 5% of collisions and 14% of fatal collisions. "Travelling too fast for conditions" (but within the prevailing speed limit) was recorded as one of the contributory factors in a further 8% of all collisions (and 9% of all fatal, 9% of all serious and 8% of all slight accidents),[n 6]
The UK government publishes Reported Road Casualties Great Britain (RRCGB) each year, based on road traffic casualties data (STATS19) reported to the police, which has been collected since 1949, and with additional data going back to 1926. The highest number of road fatalities recorded in a single year in GB was 9,196 in 1941.[n 7] The highest number of fatalities during peacetime was 7,985 for 1966,[n 8] following the introduction of the national 70 mph speed limit in 1965 and the year before the legal drink drive limit and the associated Breathalyzer laws were introduced.
The 2009 edition also summarised the characteristics of speed related fatal collisions as typically occurring on unclassified rural 30 mph speed limit roads, the driver being a male under the age of 30, with the collision types being head-on, lost control or cornering and the cause being loss of control whilst cornering or overtaking and the contributory factors being excess or inappropriate speed, loss of control, aggressive, careless or reckless behaviour or in a hurry.[n 9]
Environmental and accessibility
Speed limits are also used where reduced vehicle speeds are desired to help reduce vehicle emissions and traffic noise, and to improve the accessibility conditions for more vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists and to reduce the perceived traffic risk for local people.
Parliament estimates that "Most drivers and pedestrians think speeds are generally too high but 95% of all drivers admit to exceeding speed limits". DfT guidance makes it clear that setting speed limits in isolation, or setting ones that are "unrealistically low" may be ineffective and lead to disrespect for the speed limit. Bath and North East Somerset Council say that speed limits on their own do not necessarily reduce traffic speeds and should be supported by enforcement to target "irresponsible drivers" or traffic calming.
20 mph speed limits and zones
The Department for Transport encourages the use of either '20 mph speed limits' or '20 mph speed limit zones' in urban situations where vulnerable road users are at particular risk.
In 1998 the TRL reported that signed 20 mph (32 km/h) speed limits only reduced traffic speeds by about 1 mph and delivered no discernible reduction in accident numbers but that 20 mph zones achieved average speed reductions of 10 mph with child pedestrian accident reductions of 70% and child cyclist accident reductions of 48%. The report noted that the cost of wide area traffic calming was prohibitive.
20 mph speed limits
20 mph speed limits are based on signage alone and are used where 85th percentile speeds are already below 24 mph.
A report published in 2010 by the Department for Transport regarding Portsmouth City Council's 20 mph (32 km/h) speed limit on 410 km (250 mi) of the city's 438 km (272 mi) of roads found a small (1.3 mph) reduction in traffic speed and a small 8% increase in the number of serious accidents – neither of which were statistically significant – and a 21% reduction in the number of accidents. There was a 6% increase in the numbers killed or seriously injured (KSI) – also not statistically significant due to the small numbers involved – and a 22% reduction in the total number of road casualties.
20 mph zones
In places where 20 mph speeds are desired but where excessive speeds (85th percentile speed of 24 mph or above) occur, 20 mph zones are recommended. These have to use traffic calming measures to reduce speeds to below 20 mph.
By August 2002, Kingston upon Hull had introduced 112 20-mph zones and 190 km of roads subject to a 20 mph limit covering 26% of the city's streets which they described as contributing to "dramatic reductions in road casualties". Total collisions were reduced by 56%, Killed & seriously injured collisions down 90%, child casualties collisions down 64% and all pedestrian collisions down 54% and child pedestrian collisions down 74%.
A report published in 2008 estimated that following the introduction of 20 mph zones in London, a reduction of casualties by 45% and KSI by 57% occurred.
Research carried out for the Department for Transport, to provide supporting evidence for Local Transport Note 1/11 on shared space, showed that in all of the ten shared space sites that were studied, that although they all had speed limits of 30 mph, that the average speeds on them was around 20 mph.
The introduction of the 70 mph speed limit
In 1966, at the end of the 4-month trial of a blanket 70 mph (113 km/h) speed limit on previously unrestricted roads and motorways, speed checks on the M6 in Cheshire suggested that although cars were actually being driven about 10 mph (16 km/h) faster, they were still usually travelling at speeds below the new limit. The crash rate was lower on the M6 in Staffordshire (the better weather was noted too) and continued to fall on the M5 in Worcestershire as it had before the new limit was imposed, and there was no change in the crash rate on the M6 in Cheshire or on the M1 in Northamptonshire.
Speed limit enforcement is used to check that road vehicles are complying with the speed limits. Methods used include Fixed speed cameras, Average speed cameras and also police operated LIDAR speed guns and older radar speed guns. In addition Vehicle activated sign and Community Speed Watch groups also encourage compliance. For lower speed limits, physical Traffic Calming is normally required. Fixed speed cameras are controversial with various advocacy groups supporting and opposing their use.
The Nottingham Safety Camera Pilot achieved "virtually complete compliance" on the major ring road into the city using average speed cameras, and across all Nottinghamshire SPECS installations their KSI figures have fallen by an average of 65%.
Since they have been introduced various groups have campaigned on the subject who either consider them to be irrelevant, set too low or set too high.
Advocacy groups include Association of British Drivers, The Automobile Association, Living Streets (originally Pedestrians' Association), RAC Foundation, RoadPeace, Royal Automobile Club (originally the Automobile Club), Twenty is Plenty (20's Plenty for Us), Safe Speed and others.
The first speed limits in the United Kingdom were set by a series of restrictive Locomotive Acts (in 1861, 1865 and 1878). The 1861 Act introduced a 10 mph (16 km/h) limit (powered passenger vehicles were then termed “light locomotives”). The 1865 (the 'Red Flag Act') reduced the speed limit to 4 mph (6 km/h) in the country and 2 mph (3 km/h) in towns and required a man with a red flag or lantern to walk 60 yards (50 m) ahead of each vehicle, and warn horse riders and horse drawn traffic of the approach of a self-propelled machine. The 1878 Act removed the need for the flag and reduced the distance of the escort to 20 yards (20 m).
Following intense advocacy by motor vehicle enthusiasts, including Harry J. Lawson of the Daimler Company the most restrictive parts of the acts were lifted by the Locomotives on Highways Act 1896. which raised the speed limit to 14 mph (23 km/h) and removed the need for the escort. A celebratory run from London to Brighton was held soon after the act was passed and has been commemorated each year since 1927 by the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run.
The speed limit for motor cars was raised to 20 mph (32 km/h) by the Motor Car Act 1903 which stood until 1 January 1931 when all speed limits for cars and motorcycles were abolished under the Road Traffic Act 1930. Lord Buckmaster's opinion at the time was that the speed limit was removed because "the existing speed limit was so universally disobeyed that its maintenance brought the law into contempt". Between 1930 and 1935 the number of annual road fatalities dropped from 7,305 to 6,502.[n 8] The same act also introduced a 30 mph (48 km/h) speed limits for UK coach services, UK bus services and most HGVs. Buses were not necessarily fitted with Speedometers at this stage.
A 'Road traffic (speedometer) bill' was debated in 1933 relating only to vehicles to which current speed limits applied.
The Road Traffic Act 1934, created by Leslie Hore-Belisha, the then Minister of Transport, introduced a speed limit of 30 mph (48 km/h) in built-up areas for cars and motorcycles which came into effect on 18 March 1935. The definition of a built-up area was based on the presence of street lighting, which had previously been mandated by the Public Health Act 1875. The re-introduction of a speed limit for cars was in response to concern at increased road casualties. The number of fatalities had increased to 7,343 deaths, half of the deaths were pedestrians and of three-quarters of these occurred in built-up areas. Between 1935 and 1940 the number of annual road fatalities increased from 6,502 to 8,609.[n 8]
World War II
A 20 mph (32 km/h) night-time speed limit for built-up areas was introduced in 1940 as an attempt to halt the increase in the number of road casualties occurring during the World War II blackouts. Following the introduction of blackouts fatalities rose on speed-limited roads from 289 in March 1939 to 325 in March 1940. For October 1940 the total number of deaths during daylight (when the speed limit didn't apply) fell, in relation to those for October 1939, from 511 to 462, whereas the figures for the black-out hours (when the speed limit did apply) rose from 501 to 684. The highest number of deaths in any one year in the UK occurred the following year (9,196 people in 1941).[n 10]
On 1 October 1956, the 30 mph (48 km/h) speed limit for built-up areas became permanent under the Road Traffic Act 1956. The speed limit, introduced on a trial basis in 1935, had relied on being renewed by Parliament each year. The maximum speed limit for goods vehicles was raised from 20 mph (32 km/h) to 30 mph (48 km/h) in 1957.
Following a series of serious motorway multiple crashes in the fog in 1965, Tom Fraser, the then Minister of Transport, following consultations in early November with the police and with the National Road Safety Advisory Council (NRSAC), concluded that the crashes were caused by vehicles travelling too fast for the prevailing conditions. The NRSAC advised that a 20 mph (32 km/h) motorway speed limit should be imposed on motorway stretches affected by fog and that a general speed limit of 70 mph (113 km/h) should be experimentally applied for the winter months.
On 25 November 1965 the government announced that a temporary 30 mph (48 km/h) speed limit would be applied to sections of motorway (there were 350 miles (560 km) of it at that time) affected by fog, ice or snow and that a general maximum speed limit of 70 mph (113 km/h) would be applied to all otherwise unrestricted roads, including motorways, for a trial period of four months starting just before Christmas. The four-month trial 70 mph (113 km/h) speed limit on 100,000 miles (160,000 km) of previously unrestricted roads and motorways was introduced at noon on 22 December 1965. Also on that day, the power for the police to apply advisory speed limits of 30 mph (48 km/h) to motorways affected by bad weather was also introduced. The advisory limit was activated by the use of flashing amber lights placed at 1 mile (1.6 km) intervals along the motorways.
In April 1966 Barbara Castle, the new Minister of Transport, decided to extend the experimental 70 mph (113 km/h) limit for a further two months to allow the Road Research Laboratory (RRL) time to collect data as there was still no conclusive evidence of its effectiveness. In May 1966 Barbara Castle extended the experimental period by a further fifteen months to 3 September 1967 as "the case is not proven" but there were signs of crash rate reduction.
In July 1966 the speed limit for "public service vehicles" (notably buses) was raised from 40 mph (64 km/h) to 50 mph (80 km/h). During 1966, the highest number of fatalities during peacetime at 7,985 deaths, was recorded.[n 8]
In July 1967, Castle announced that 70 mph (113 km/h) was to become the permanent maximum speed limit for all roads and motorways. She had accepted RRL evidence that the speed limit had reduced the number of casualties on motorways. She ruled out minimum speed limits for motorways which would also reduce the danger of slow traffic as being too difficult to enforce and likely to increase congestion off the motorways.
The two major motoring organisations at the time, The Automobile Association and the R.A.C. welcomed the maximum speed limits for all-purpose roads, but the R.A.C. would have preferred more flexibility for motorways. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents suggested that a lower speed limit would be more appropriate for all-purpose roads and the Pedestrian's Association for Road Safety condemned the new limits as being too high, preferring 60 mph (97 km/h) limits for all roads. Castle's decision and acceptance of the RRL research at face value was controversial. Peter Walker's motion in Parliament to annul the speed limit on motorways was negatived.
1973 oil crisis
Due to the 1973 oil crisis, a temporary maximum national speed limit of 50 mph (80 km/h) for all roads, including motorways, was introduced on 8 December 1973. The 70 mph (113 km/h) limit was restored on motorways in March 1974 and on all other roads on 8 May 1974.
As an initiative to reduce energy consumption, the national speed limits for otherwise unrestricted single-carriageway and dual-carriageway roads were temporarily reduced to 50 mph (80 km/h) and 60 mph (97 km/h) respectively (motorway speed limits were left unchanged at 70 mph (113 km/h)) from 14 December 1974. In November 1976 the temporary speed limits were extended at least until the end of May 1977. In April 1977, the government announced that the national speed limits for single-carriageway roads was to be increased to 60 mph (97 km/h) and that the 70 mph (113 km/h) speed limit was to be restored on dual-carriageways on 1 June 1977.
The 70 mph (113 km/h) speed limit was made permanent in 1978.[n 11]
The Road Traffic Regulation Act, which was passed in 1984, includes legislation relating to speed limits. Part VI of the Act defines the default speed limit for 'regularly'-lit roads, gives local authorities powers to create 'speed limit orders', and exempts emergency vehicles from speed limits; the Act also defines speeding offences.
The first 20 mph (32 km/h) speed limits for residential areas were introduced in 1991[n 12] and then speed limiters for buses and coaches set at 65 mph (105 km/h) and also for HGVs set at 56 mph (90 km/h) in 1994.[n 1] It was made easier for local authorities to introduce a 20 mph (32 km/h) limit in 1999.
In March 2009 the government consulted on reducing speed limits on rural roads on which 52% of fatalities had occurred in the previous year to 50 mph. They explained that 'crashes were more likely on rural parts of the road network, upon most of which the national speed limit of 60 mph applies'. The Conservative opposition party and the AA were both opposed. The president of the AA said that speed limits that are too low can result in a greater number of accidents and that a "blanket reduction of speed limits would not make roads safer, given that many accidents on rural roads involved only one car".
In February 2010 the Department for Transport proposed that the speed limit for all road vehicles able to carry more than 8 people should be set at 65 mph.
- Department for Transport (2009), p.181 "Speed limiter settings lowered to 65 mph for new buses and coaches and to 56 mph for HGVs."
- Department for Transport (2009), p.179 "Mopeds redefined to 30 mph maximum design speed"
- World Heath Organisation (2004) p. 34 fig 2.1
- World Heath Organisation (2004) p. 76
- Department for Transport (2009), p. 41 "Fourteen per cent of accidents had a speed related contributory factor reported, either exceeding the speed limit or travelling too fast for conditions. This increased to 24% for fatal accidents, accounting for 25% of all road deaths."
- Department for Transport (2009), p. 45 "Exceeding the speed limit was reported as a contributory factor in 5% of all accidents. However, the factor became more signiﬁcant with the severity of the accident. It was reported in 14% of fatal accidents and these accidents accounted for 362 fatalities, 15% of all deaths... The factor travelling too fast for conditions was a contributory factor in 8% of accidents. Again, the proportion of accidents where it was reported rose with the severity of the accident and 9% of fatal resulting in 224 fatalities, 10% of all deaths (Excluding accidents and casualties in accidents which had exceeding the speed limit reported as a contributory factor)"
- Department for Transport (2009), p.106 "The highest record road death figure was 9,196 in 1941"
- Department for Transport (2009), p. 106 table 2
- Department for Transport (2010), pdf p. 91, table 7a
- Department for Transport (2009), p. 106 "The highest record road death figure was 9,196 in 1941"
- Department for Transport (2009), p.179 "60 and 70 mph speed limits are made permanent"
- Department for Transport (2009), p.180 "First 20mph zones introduced"
- Documents referenced from 'Notes' section
- Department for Transport (2009). "Reported Road Casualties Great Britain: 2008 Annual Report". Retrieved 2010-01-09.
- Department for Transport (2010). "Reported Road Casualties Great Britain: 2009 Annual Report". Retrieved 2010-11-01.
- World Health Organisation (2004). "World report on road traffic injury prevention" (in many languages). Retrieved 2010-04-13.
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- A road's speed limit is 30 mph (48 km/h) if the road's street lights are "[not placed] more than 200 yards apart" in England and Wales or "not more than 185 metres" in Scotland; a local authority can choose whether or not a 'restricted road' remains as such (for a road within the aforementioned street lighting requirements)—cf. Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, section 82: What roads are restricted roads.
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