If you dislike disinformation, here’s what’s actually happening with speed limits in Ireland

Comment & Analysis: The Government is planning to reform the Speed Limits Guidelines, but there has been misinformation and even disinformation from people who don’t really get what’s going on or are willfully misrepresenting  the situation.

The Government’s and Department of Transport thinking on the issue also might not help. On one hand we’re being told that speed limits should be set by using the most suitable limit for any given road, but we’re also being told arterial roads should be 50km/h with no nuance about the context.

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Why is the Minister for Transport setting these limits?

The guidelines are being set at Department of Transport level, but — as always been the case — councils will set the limits for roads in their areas.

But this is just a knee jerk reaction to the increased number of road deaths this year?

Because of the carnage on our roads, legal changes are being fast-tracked but the speed limit guidelines review was already part of the Government’s Road Safety Strategy and the review was already on-going.

Why are “blanket” speed limits being planned?

There’s no indication or evidence that the Government is planning blanket speed limits. The opposite is actually planned with more nuance than before — where years ago 50km/h was a near blanket speed limit in urban areas, now there will be a mix of 30, 50 and 60km/h

Similarly in rural areas, it’s proposed that the current near-blanket 80km/h speed limit for most non-national rural roads will now not apply to smaller local rural roads. It’s expected 60km/h will be the default on these local roads while 80km/h will still apply to most regional roads and 100km/h to national roads.

The default for national secondary roads, which are generally of a much lower quality than national roads, will be reduced from 100km/h to 80km/h but councils will be able to set the limits higher where a case can be made for such (ie a section of a higher standard of road).

But the default in urban areas will be 30km/h?

Yes, the difference will be the change in the default urban limit so that 50km/h will be replaced by 30km/h. But that doesn’t rule out 50km/h.

It will be kind of the reverse of the current situation where 50km/h is the default but 30km/h is applied widely.

But it would put Ireland on course to have some of the lowest speed limits?

On paper for urban areas, but the UK, France, the Netherlands etc are ahead of us on setting lower limits in urban areas and providing design changes to support it, even if their default hasn’t been adjusted.

For rural roads, 80km/h is a common default as speed across Europe. We have abnormally high limits for more minor rural roads.

Why is the change in the urban default needed?

Most councils have taken some steps to applying 30km/h to housing estates but others have been slower and, outside of city centres, few have applied 30km/h to town centres and other urban centres.

But even the fact that 30km/h covers most residential areas means it is already covering the majority of urban streets (again, not everywhere), so, it makes sense to make it the default.

30km/h is too low, it’s not even 20mph… Why not 15km/h?

The available research indicates that 30km/h is much safer than 50km/h and there’s a simple answer to why not lower — on most urban roads the benefits of limits lower than 30km/h trail off very quickly.

On a practical level too, 30km/h is more of a balanced limit. In many cases where 30km/h is likely to be applied in urban areas, traveling at 50km/h offers little advantage except going faster before having to slow down or stop again at traffic lights, roundabouts, or a line of traffic.

But even at 50km/h drivers will slow down before they hit someone?!

Some will and some won’t, for various reasons. The fact is, reducing speed also increases a driver’s field of vision — this is why a motorist driving at 50km/h often won’t even see people walking it cycling.

But what are “special” speed limits?

The concept behind “special” speed limits in previous law and guidelines was to allow local councils to change the limits without changing the default. So, if a council uses 30km/h or 40km/h where the urban default is 50km/h, that’s special limit.

However, the use of the word special for this is really poor communications — for most people some like a limit which is a special limit means it is exceptional. At the very least, 30km/h should be the default for residential areas and town centres, that’s not special.

A striking example of the misuse of the term special is the international research backing the Speed Limit Review — for the Netherlands it lists 50km/h as the standard limit in urban areas and 30km/h as the special limit, but if you dig deeper it says 70% of Dutch urban roads are now 30km/h.

Arterial roads will still be 50km/h, right?

The Speed Limit Review states that 50km/h should apply on “National, Regional, arterial roads and key public transport routes.”

But, unless more nuance is added, this is not in line with best practice where limits are set based on a mix of the design and context of a road or street not on some abstract, arbitrary fudging of an issue for political reasons.

The context should not just look at the designation of a road or street but also function, ie is there lots of pedestrians, homes, housing estates, shops, a school etc? Or is there a narrow footpath or no space for cycle paths? If so, a lower limit may be more suited.

But it’s all pointless without enforcement?

Road safety needs what is called the 3 E — engineering, education, and enforcement.

But progress is often a messy busy. For example, a change in the limit can help with a redesign or relocation of space and that’s engineering which often trumps the other two. If limits stay higher, that’s just another excuse not to install traffic calming or zebra crossings.

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