Right Driver

Public support for 20mph limits. Is Brake’s research flawed?

Brake and Allianz recently conducted a poorly worded survey that erroneously indicates there is strong public support for 20mph limits. Brake already is pushing for a 20mph speed limit as the default on urban roads via its GO 20 campaign.

In January we discussed Edinburgh’s proposed 20mph limit and why it might be flawed thinking. The public is only ever given the side of the story that suits certain agendas, and the strongest agenda is that of visible safety. It’s easy to tell when there is an agenda because words like ‘senseless and violent casualties’ are rolled out by people like Julie Townsend, Deputy Chief Executive of Brake.

She also says, “The GO 20 campaign is about defending everyone’s right to walk and cycle freely without being endangered, whether it’s to get to work, school, the shops, or just getting out and being active.” Brake’s research discovered that 78 per cent of respondents to their poll think the lower speed limit should become the norm around schools, in residential areas, and in village, town and city centres (this is a flawed question, as we’ll see below).

There is no doubt that a 20mph limit around a school is common sense. However, when we grew up, we were taught the Green Cross Code. That guy that played Darth Vader helped us cross safely in the TV ads. We respected the traffic lights on our bikes, and we signalled using hand signals when we wanted to turn. As a child I used to bike up and down the A16 and around all the B roads and never once had a problem or near miss.

We hear no assessment on the environmental impact that driving slower will have; cars are much less efficient at 20mph than 30mph and therefore we will be creating more pollution and therefore more ‘invisible’ deaths. And once we are all driving at 20mph and people are still dying on the roads, why would Brake not call for a 10mph limit on all urban streets so that pedestrians can ignore the Green Cross Code with impunity, and cyclists can run red lights at will?

Let’s have a look in more detail at what Brake found. Their full news story is here (opens in a new window). Be aware that when a ‘charity’ includes a case study using emotional terminology, as Brake has done in its report, it ceases to be objective.

Here are the questions Brake asked:

Q1. Do you think roads in your town/city/village (or in towns/villages in your area) need to be made safer for walking and cycling?
• 72% said yes
• 28% said no

Question 1 is a leading question and actually doesn’t say anything. In general, people want their roads to be safer, but there are many options for making roads safer, not just a reduction in speed limits. It doesn’t define which roads and it also lumps walking and cycling together which are two completely separate activities.

Q2. Do you think it would encourage more people to walk or cycle if roads and routes in your town/city/village (or in towns/villages in your area) were made safer?
• 79% said yes
• 21% said no

Again, like question 1, this is a redundant question and is just a setup for the following questions. The answer doesn’t say anything because we don’t know whether these people are walkers or cyclists or both. Are they answering for themselves or is it their opinion of others?

Q3. Do you think traffic in your town/city/village (or in towns/villages in your area) is too fast for the safety of children and adults on foot and bicycle?
• 30% said yes, on most local roads
• 51% said yes, on some local roads
• 20% said no, the traffic isn’t too fast

This question is valid, except it’s a question of perception and opinion, not hard facts.

Q4. Do you think 20mph should be the norm around schools, on residential streets, and in village, town and city centres?
• 78% said yes
• 22% said no

Question 4 is invalid. It implies that you can lump schools, residential streets and urban centres together. The question should be split into three because undoubtedly some of the ‘yes’ responses will only be in favour of schools, but not residential streets but will not have answered no.

Q5. Do you think there should be more 20mph limits in towns, cities and villages to make it safer for people to walk and cycle?
• 63% said yes
• 37% said no

Question 5’s result proves that question 4’s wording is invalid. 78% of people in question 4 said they wanted a 20mph limit, but now only 63% of people want a 20mph limit, and it’s only one question later! It also implies that changing a limit to 20mph makes it safer to walk and cycle without looking at any other factors in the road layout, or whether people are just generally oblivious to what’s going on around them.

Q6. Do you think the default urban limit should be changed from 30mph to 20mph, with the option for local authorities to retain higher speeds on main through roads?
• 53% said yes
• 47% said no

This is a valid question, although given with no context. The result is skewed by the fact that questions beforehand refer to 20mph as being ‘safer’. If this question was asked in isolation (or before the other questions), there would undoubtedly be a different result, perhaps less people in favour of this default limit.

Brake also references a 20mph limit in Portsmouth which appears to not be all that it seems according to this article. The original council report on the Portsmouth 20mph scheme is here and is interesting reading.

The problem with a survey like this is that the general public does not have all the facts and are not experts. For the record, Right Driver is committed to improving the safety on our roads. We are also committed to not producing or accepting shoddy and biased research that supports an agenda because that debases trust in us. Wherever this kind of poorly structured research is presented, we will try to give you both sides of the story.

Darren has owned several companies in the automotive, advertising and education industries. He has run driving theory educational websites since 2010.

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