Brian Monteith: Why 20mph is the wrong speed limit

PC Sacha Ponniah with speed camera
PC Sacha Ponniah with speed camera
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How is Edinburgh’s 20mph speed limit going? It’s an important question to ask, for the Green Party is pushing a private Bill in the Scottish Parliament to roll it out across any urban area in Scotland.

I thought I would ask a long-serving senior Edinburgh politician who should know a thing or two.

My contact knows how the city’s transport system works and also knows what the police say off the record rather than at public meetings. (Sadly, there are often two versions of a story; the official version for public consumption and the real story of how it is out on the streets – I wanted the latter.)

I can’t reveal the person’s name as I offered anonymity so that I would get the benefit of some frank talking, rather than the usual saying what people want to hear that so many politicians go in for nowadays.

I was told that the 20mph limits were not all that was claimed because so many people ignore them and they are difficult to police when there are so many other calls upon the time of the overstretched police force.

Indeed, I was told there is a growing view that they have contributed to a rise in road rage and bad driving. What happens is that some drivers obey the 20mph limit and a tailback of impatient drivers builds up behind, causing raised tempers, sounding of horns and remonstrations – with inappropriate overtaking manoeuvres as a result.

Apparently the offenders are not just the typical ‘white van man’ or boy racers but bus drivers, taxi drivers, and emergency services, including the police themselves.

My source told me he supported 20mph limits around schools and day care centres or such like, and thought they could work in housing estates where there were no highways – but on general arterial and ­commuter routes the speed had to be 30mph and sometimes (where road conditions permitted, even 40mph) as they were just making offenders out of otherwise ordinary people who usually would not break the law.

I asked if there was likely to be any change, could the police not do more to enforce the 20mph limit? I was told that the area to be covered was vast and that the law was viewed as essentially being unworkable and lower priority. The problem is that Edinburgh traffic often travels at less than 20mph so it doesn’t need policed during much of the day – but when the roads are empty then there is often no reason to still have a 20mph limit. At those times there are fewer cars and fewer pedestrians crossing the road. At that time of the day or night the police numbers are also likely to be fewer – or otherwise disposed dealing with more serious crime.

What was described to me is ­patently an unworkable system that is likely to be changed because few politicians will have the audacity to say publicly it does not work for fear of being branded as pro-car, pro-pollution and against pedestrian safety.

To pass national legislation that will make 20mph the default speed in built up urban areas of Scotland only extends this absurdity.

A universal 20mph limit does not reduce pollution, it makes it worse; for car engines, be they diesel or petrol, are far more polluting at low speeds than at their optimal higher speeds.

The anecdotal evidence I am hearing is a universal 20mph limit does not reduce accidents – but probably causes more through greater road rage. They are probably not recorded because they are displaced and now in different places.

The Scottish Parliament should take a step back and at least wait until Edinburgh’s experiment has been around long enough to be seen to work. Anything else is virtue ­signalling of the worst kind.