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Public Health Case for Speed Limits

16 January 2014

The British Academy has published a policy advice collection in which Prof Danny Dorling  lays out evidence for wide 20mph limits as his top policy to tackle health inequalities. “If you could do one thing…" Nine local actions to reduce health inequalities.” is a guide for Local Authorities by leading Social Science academics.

Danny Dorling is the Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford. His one suggested intervention is the implementation of 20 mile per hour speed limits where 30mph ones have usually been in place.

He says that over 1,900 people died on Britain’s roads in 2011, and the proportion of those that are pedestrians has risen. Introducing 20mph zones would save lives, prevent injuries and reduce health inequalities in the process. It is a low cost measure and a devolved power that can only easily be enacted at the local level. 

His proposal sets out the case and some of the practicalities for using it:


• Road traffic accident rates are substantially higher in rural areas than urban ones, and they are the single largest cause of death for children and young people aged 5–25. Within urban areas, where the majority of the population of Britain lives, children and young adults are more at risk within poorer localities than richer urban neighbourhoods.
• Death is much less likely if a pedestrian is hit by a car travelling at 20mph, than at 30mph or more, and cyclists are far safer if travelling with traffic that does not exceed 20mph.
• Lower traffic speeds bring many other benefits: less congestion; less air pollution and CO2 emissions; stronger communities; more walking and cycling; and reduced obesity;
• Councils are already bringing in 20mph areas, and, whilst evidence is limited because implementation is recent, what there is shows marked reductions in deaths and casualties.
• Introducing ‘sign only’ 20mph areas is relatively easy, and support for them includes positive messages from police officers and resource commitments from Directors of Public Health. However, changing perceptions of appropriate driving speeds will be a long-term challenge.

In many urban areas in mainland Europe, 18.6mph (30km per hour) is now normal in residential areas. 20mph will become normal in most residential areas in Britain also.

The British Academy is the UK’s national institution for the humanities and social sciences. In its opinion pieces collection experts have drawn on evidence to identify one policy that local authorities should introduce to raise health and reduce inequalities. The report  was released on 16th January  

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