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Time to Slow Down… Again?

22 February 2021

Why we need to revisit speed management - A blog by RoadSafe Expert Panel member and Chairman  Agilysis Dan Campsalll.

The uncomfortable truth that road safety performance has flatlined in the UK for nearly a decade is forcing many to ask serious questions about how we can deliver on ambitious targets to reduce road casualties. Maybe some of the clues to a safer future lie in the successes of our recent past.

It is encouraging to see that ambition to drive down, and even eliminate road trauma remains strong in many areas. In August, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling on member states to work towards a 50% reduction in road traffic deaths by 2030. Closer to home, Transport for London have undertaken to eliminate death and serious injury from the capital’s roads by 2041 and Highways England has made a commitment that, by 2040, no-one should be harmed when travelling or working on the strategic road network. Meanwhile, we are seeing the emergence of local and regional partnerships, embracing the goal of Vision Zero and working actively from a Safe System template.

These are bold and ambitious objectives which we should expect from leading authorities who attract international attention, but are they deliverable? What will it take to deliver networks which are free from death and serious injury?

It is just over 20 years since Claes Tingvall & Narelle Haworth published “Vision Zero - An ethical approach to safety and mobility” which many would regard as a seminal piece in our understanding of the interrelationship of speed, safety and mobility. Since then, work on understanding the impact that managing speed has on reducing the frequency and severity of collisions has continued, with programme after programme of speed management demonstrating its effectiveness and evidence of the efficacy of well-designed enforcement programmes has become irrefutable.

In 2016, Soames Job, head of the Global Road Safety Facility at the World Bank published a paper in the Journal of the Australasian College of Road Safety exploring the vital role that managing speed must play in delivering on global targets. Along with co-author, Chika Sakashita, they identify eight characteristics of speed that make action plausible, implementable and necessary. Emphasising speed as the toxin in the Safe System, they draw attention to the predictable relationship between speed and collision severity as well as the advantages of lower speeds to vulnerable road users and many other public policy goals (reducing fossil fuel use, reducing emissions, reducing climate change effects of transport, and reducing noise pollution).

And last year, at the Global Ministerial Conference in Stockholm, Sweden, the expert academic group brought forward their work on ‘Saving Lives Beyond 2020’ which includes a heavy emphasis on speed management . 2 of the 9 recommendations tackle the issue of speed management head-on (Zero Speeding & 30kmh in urban areas) meanwhile other recommendations focus on modal shift and the health of children and young people, which are dependent on delivering a more reliable, slower speed network.

It is was around the time that Tingvall & Haworth were articulating their approach to Vision Zero that the UK Department for Transport set-up a national project board to oversea the introduction of a cost-recovery system for speed cameras. In the years that followed, speed compliance increased rapidly on Britain’s roads due to significant expansion of the enforcement infrastructure and at the same time we witnessed a dramatic fall in death and serious injury; something which continued until 2010. We need to ask ourselves what part speed management played in the progress of the early 2000s and are there lessons that we can learn and apply in order to reap similar improvements in the future?

Speed in a Safe System

At the heart of our understanding about speed management is an appreciation of the tolerance of the human body to withstand an impact; for a pedestrian hit by a well-designed car, this will likely be exceeded if the vehicle is travelling at over approximately 20mph. On roads without vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists, higher speeds are acceptable but would still be limited by the effect of an impact on the human body once you allow for how much protection is afforded by the vehicle. The recent UK Road Safety Management Capacity Review (2018) highlighted the ongoing disparity between posted limits and the design speed of roads stating: “Posted speed limits allow speeds that are in excess of the design limits of roads and roadsides and vehicle capability to protect against death and serious injury.”

Credible Limits and a Culture of Compliance

In the early days of automated enforcement, cameras were seen as highly contentious. Not as forgiving as a congenial officer at the roadside and sometimes located where motorists failed to understand the reason for them being there, they generated a huge volume of public debate. There is a good deal of work still to be done to explain why speed limits should be set at differing levels, because the credibility of limits is at the heart of delivering a culture of compliance on our networks. However, our relationship with speed compliance has undoubtedly changed as we see strong and sustained public support for well managed speeds demonstrated by high levels of acceptance of the limit, environmental groups concerned about the impact of higher speeds on air quality and businesses who want improved traffic flow and journey time reliability.

So where next?

It is imperative that we revisit and reengage with a more integrated speed management policy for a wide variety of reasons:

Changing Relationship with Infrastructure

The way in which we think about mobility is shifting from a focus on high volumes of vehicle movement, preferably at speed, to an understanding that there are wider goals around public health, community integration and our concern for the environment. When our goals for infrastructure change the way in which we use it must change too.

Changing Relationship with Technology

Our reliance on technology increases on an almost daily basis and we therefore no longer treat it with at historic sense of mistrust. The behaviour of many drivers is already informed by telematics insurance or fleet management solutions and from 2022 all new vehicles sold in Europe will have intelligent speed assistance fitted as standard. This can mark a step change in our relationship with speed across many nations.

Changing Relationship with Vehicles

Of course, a longer-term vision for an autonomous vehicle fleet means that speed choice will no longer be something over which the driver has control. We won’t get to determine how fast we drive because the parameters are set by the vehicle and the network. But until we get there, we still need to give serious thought to the management of speed on our roads.


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