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Scottish government tells campaigners it won't back default 20mph speed limit

Campaigners criticise Scottish government's refusal to back 20mph bill, saying higher speeds make for "feral" roads...

Campaigners have criticised the Scottish Government for failing to back a national default 20mph speed limit, they say could tackle the nation’s “feral” roads.

In a letter sent to Sustrans Scotland, seen by, the Scottish transport minister, Michael Matheson, said he will not back a blanket reduction of the national speed limit as part of the 20mph Restricted Roads Bill, saying that drivers may not comply with changes. 

Campaigners say a default 20mph in built up areas would improve road safety for the most vulnerable road users, and without a national standard, and a simplification of the “labyrinthine” process to reduce speeds, there will be a "postcode lottery" of safety on Scotland’s streets.

Replying to an open letter sent by campaigners to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, supporting the Bill, Matheson writes: “There is clear evidence that lower speeds reduce the number of casualties and there is specific evidence of casualty reduction in 20mph speed limit zones... particularly for disadvantaged areas”. However, he adds, “Changing a speed limit does not indeed guarantee that actual speed limits will change”.

“The guidance on setting all speed limits is clear that they should be reasonable and consistent if they are to be credible to road users and obeyed as a result.”

Matheson says he wants more evidence before making a decision.

John Lauder, Sustrans Scotland’s National Director, called reduced speeds “fundamental” to road safety.

“That is the most economical, efficient way to create a better balance on the streets in terms of speed and vehicle movement that we know badly affects pedestrians and older and younger people,” he told 

“We know speed, and the acceleration and deceleration required to get to 30mph, creates a feral atmosphere on our streets.”

He said without government leadership, “there could be a postcode lottery” on safety.

Edinburgh adopted a default 20mph on residential roads and the city centre, in 2018, and last week the Welsh Government announced default 20mph speed limits for residential areas. Last year a global study called for default 20mph limits in built-up areas, after finding a strong relationship between slower speeds and reduced crashes and casualties.

If the Bill is successful neighbourhoods will be able to apply for 30mph speed limits, but it will be the exception for built up areas, not the norm.

Campaigners would like the process of implementing 20mph speed limits simplified; at the moment, Lauder says, the Traffic Regulation Orders required are “labyrinthine”, and “one objector can hold up the whole process”.

Professor Chris Oliver, a retired orthopaedic trauma surgeon turned cycle campaigner, told the Scotsman: “It’s ironic that the Scottish Government have both declared a climate emergency and scrapped the reduction of air travel levy, but are wavering on implementing the 20mph bill".

“We know it’s well established that 20mph makes cities much more liveable, enable more active travel to occur in 20mph areas, more equality of access to transport, better air quality, better health and significantly fewer casualties.”

The Scottish government is currently gathering evidence on whether 20mph speed limits are beneficial and whether a blanket approach is the best way of improving road safety. 

Matheson fears the Bill could divert resources away from existing road safety activity, “evidenced to be more effective at reducing casualties’" and further consideration needs to be given to the "impact and consequences of a nationwide 20mph limit”. 

Lauder adds: “The decision isn’t made as far as I’m concerned. I respect what Mr Matheson has said, in that he’s not sure about the government taking a blanket approach. I would rather he reviewed his position, respectfully.”

“We are now actively delivering some good quality infrastructure in Scotland. We are doing a lot carrot; there’s a need now to talk about further change and that inevitably means stick, that means 20 mph, and workplace parking levies, and as difficult and inconvenient as that seems people will learn to accept it, just as the smoking ban or the wearing of seat belts."

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