The pernicious creep of the 20mph zone

The blight of the 20mph speed limit

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

‘Twenty is plenty’ say the passive-aggressive road signs as you drive very slowly through 20mph zones all over Britain. The slogan is accompanied by a cartoon drawing of a snail. Then you get a frowny-frowny-frowny electronic sign and you slow from 25 to 20 to make it turn into a smiley face. That’s how we’ve been softened up: with a cocktail of the sanctimonious and the kindergarten.

As I crawl along the empty dual carriageway of Park Lane late in the evening, where the speed limit has been reduced from its previous 40mph to the now blanket central-London limit of 20, I hiss: ‘No, twenty is not plenty. Twenty is lente.’ It feels ludicrously slow: the trundle of a Dinky car, and an affront to common sense. This week’s 20mph go-slows on motorways to protest against fuel duty show that what we’re now being forced to do on our urban streets is regarded as a case of civil disobedience if we do it on the motorways or A roads.

Am I really saving a pedestrian’s life by going at 20mph down Park Lane? There are no pedestrians. I can understand the 20mph rule in a shopping street or on a residential road. But on a thoroughfare it feels crazy. To keep to this counter-intuitive speed, you need to keep your eye constantly on the speedometer, which is dangerous in itself.

‘You can’t really mean 20, can you?’ I thought at first, when the rollout of the 20mph rule spread across urban areas and I got stuck behind some annoying person actually obeying the rule. The police have since shown us they certainly do mean it. Twenty-six million of us now live in a 20mph zone, and nearly everyone I know – upright, law-abiding citizens who obediently wore masks and kept to the Rule of Not Visiting Granny – have since been clobbered by fines for driving at 26mph. With its new hi-tech cameras, Transport for London alone is aiming to issue a million speeding tickets per year by 2024. A new app is being developed which will enable other motorists to take photos of us going at 24mph and submit them to the police for ‘processing and enforcement’.

So many of us have been fined that we’ve been reduced to a state of docile compliance. I travel round London on the back of my husband’s Vespa, and I can tell you all the fun has gone out of it. At 20mph, we’re constantly being overtaken by cyclists.

It was in the manifestos, but how many of us noticed this or remember a well-informed, cross-examined public debate about it? That’s our fault, but I do have a sense that this new world of enforced slowness has been foisted on us in an overwhelming, blanket way by zealots and activists. Non-activists – the passive majority, probably – just woke up one morning and found themselves living in it.

The new rule will probably never be reversed, because no one wants to be seen to row back on health and safety. Councillors have jumped on to the ‘safety’ bandwagon, reluctant to protest for fear of being branded a pedestrian murderer. The Welsh government has issued a particularly infantilising animated video justifying the 20mph rollout across Wales. ‘Vision Zero’ is London mayor Sadiq Khan’s slogan for his 20mph law across all of central London: the aim being the elimination of road deaths. It’s one more for the deaf-to-all-argument ‘zero’ collection, along with ‘net zero’ and ‘zero Covid’.

Of course, none of us wants pedestrians to die. But, as with all spin, the spin of ‘elimination of deaths’ allows ‘zero’ space for the other side of the argument, in this case the argument that there just might be a few disadvantages to adding two extra travelling hours per week on to millions of people’s daily commutes or school runs, which now take 45 minutes rather than the previous 30. That’s millions more wasted hours per year, stifling the nation’s efficiency. Motorists and motorcyclists are seen as a legitimate target, like smokers, their behaviour to be nudged, via frustration and expense, into a hoped-for eventual total-giving-up of the habit.

The 20mph rule is affecting our daily lives more than Brexit. I asked a group of Deliveroo drivers outside our local pizza restaurant what they think of it. They hate it. They’re paid by the order, not by the hour, and the reduction from 30mph to 20 means that every order is now taking almost half as long again to deliver. ‘If you start a campaign to go back to 30 on main roads,’ one of them said to me, ‘I’ll support it.’ Off he toddled, pitifully slowly, pizzas cooling in his topbox, hungry people a few miles away chafing at the delay.

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