National 20mph speed limit for built-up areas introduced in Wales

Dropping the speed limit from 30 is unpopular, polls show, but the Welsh Government claims 10 lives per year will be saved


Wales implements its new national 20mph speed limit in restricted areas from 17 September, as motoring organisations warn drivers not to rely on their sat-navs for speed limit guidance.

The law change means 20mph will be the default speed limit in any built up area where street lights are closer than 184m (200 yards) apart, unless local authorities have applied for exceptions where 20mph is deemed inappropriate. 

The Welsh Labour government is behind the change, with First Minister, Mark Drakeford telling the BBC that increased journey times for drivers was not an “unfair bargain” as he claimed the measure would save 10 lives in Wales every year. The Welsh government believes the new national limit for roads in built-up areas will reduce collisions, noise, pollution, and also encourage more citizens to cycle and walk.

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The changes will affect around 7,500 miles of Wales’s 22,000-mile road network, and require 30,000 road signs to be replaced. The cost of £32.5m will be recouped through NHS savings that could top £90m, says Welsh Labour, although the Welsh Conservatives say the economic cost of increased journey times will be huge, and the UK leader of the Commons Penny Mordaunt declared the change “insane”.

Even in Wales the move faces significant opposition, with a recent poll suggesting two-thirds of the population were against lowering the limit from 30mph. Trials running in various Welsh regions ahead of the law change have shown a small reduction in vehicle speeds, with numbers of cars travelling at 30-34mph falling from 13 to 9 per cent, those travelling at 25-29mph falling from 38 to 28 per cent, and those travelling at 20-24mph rising from 34 to 39 per cent. Numbers of more serious speeders travelling at 35mph and above, reduced from 4 to 3 per cent.

Welsh police say they’ll engage in education ahead of prosecution for the first 12 months of the change, giving time for drivers to get used to the new limit. Meanwhile, drivers have been warned not to trust their sat-navs for up-to-date speed limit information by motoring organisations including the RAC, whose spokesman Simon Williams says delays in updates to sat-nav systems mean drivers should pay full attention to road signs instead.

Study shows 20mph limits have little impact on safety

Reducing speed limits to 20mph has little effect on road safety, that was according to a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 2022.

Researchers analysed 76 roads in central Belfast before and after 20mph speed limits were introduced, comparing them to other roads in Northern Ireland where 30mph or 40mph speed limits had been retained.

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The findings were that there were “no statistically significant differences” in the long-term rate of crashes and casualties, or the average speed of traffic. Roads with 20mph limits did, however, experience less traffic, according to the research.

The study concluded that policymakers considering implementing 20mph speed limit interventions should consider the fidelity, context and scale of implementation.

RAC road safety spokesman Simon Williams said: “The findings of this study are surprising, as they appear to suggest that drivers on 20mph roads in Belfast hardly slowed down at all, despite the lower speed limit, which is at odds with other reports.


“It seems there is a serious problem with compliance, as we would expect that – even without enforcement – average speeds would drop. Consequently, the study may demonstrate a need for councils to find other ways to get drivers to slow down, whether that’s through enforcement or modifying road design with traffic islands, well designed speed humps or chicanes.

“It’s also important that 20mph limits are used in places where they stand to make the biggest positive impact, such as in built-up areas and in locations where there are large volumes of motorised traffic, cyclists and pedestrians – but clearly that depends on a meaningful drop in overall vehicle speeds. Equally, our research shows drivers are less likely to comply with a lower limit if they don’t believe it’s appropriate for the type of road.”

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