Study of DfT and Ministry of Justice data also reveals steep decline in drivers found to have committed speeding offences

The number of motorists speeding on 30 mile per hour roads in built-up areas in Great Britain fell by more than a third between 1998 and 2010, according to a new study, Speed and Safety: Evidence from published data, published by the RAC Foundation and the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety.

The study, which analysed various data published by the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Justice, also found that after the number of drivers committing speed limit offences in England & Wales increased threefold to more than 2.0 million in the decade to 2004, it had since fallen by nearly 40 per cent in 2009.

That’s the latest year for which details of offences – comprising “all findings of guilty at all courts, fixed penalty notices and written warnings in England & Wales” are available, and coincidentally is the year before the Coalition Government came to power with former Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond declaring an end to “the war on the motorist.”

Given the period analysed in the report, it is impossible to determine whether that highly publicised statement by a cabinet minister may have brought about a change in behaviour on the part of some motorists when it comes to ensuring they comply with traffic laws including speed limits.

The report’s author, Dr Kit Mitchell, formerly of the Transport Research Laboratory, acknowledged that greater awareness among motorists of where speed cameras are located through the use of maps and sat-nav devices may be a factor behind the reduction, as could the use of speed awareness courses.

Although not addressed in the study, any change in enforcement of speed limits could also potentially be a factor, while with fixed speed cameras, some motorists do slow down beforehand and speed up once they have passed them. Moreover, when Oxfordshire turned off speed cameras temporarily in 2010, there was an increase in the number of motorists speeding at the locations concerned.

However, he added that separate data analysing free-flow traffic speeds also pointed to increased compliance with speed limits, suggesting “that a combination of enforcement and education is gradually changing attitudes to speeding, particularly in urban areas, in the same way that attitudes to drinking and driving were changed in the 1970s and 1980s.”

In 1998, some 69 per cent of cars on roads in built-up areas with a speed limit of 30 miles an hour were being driven above the speed limit, compared to 46 per cent in 2010.

Moreover, on those same roads, the proportion of vehicles exceeding 35 miles per hour halved from 2001 to 2010, down from 32 per cent to 16 per cent.

The data were based on a sample of 96 automatic traffic counters out of a national network of around 180.

The report added that while a high correlation between the incidence of speeding on 30 mile per hour roads and pedestrian casualties, including fatalities, “demonstrates an association between casualties and speeds… it cannot prove a causal link.

The RAC Foundation’s Director, Professor Stephen Glaister, commented: “There are two significant things about the fall in speeds.

“First, they predate the economic downturn and the recent high fuel costs.

“Second, there is an association between falling speeds in urban areas and falling fatality rates. It is particularly strong for pedestrians.

“The conclusion is clear. Whatever the cause of an accident the speed at which it happens will determine its severity.

“There is another interesting part of the story. Even as ministers discuss raising the motorway speed limit to 80 mph, drivers are actually cutting their speeds on this part of the road network.

“While this report only includes data up to 2010, recently released figures for 2011 underline the findings.”

Rob Gifford, executive director of PACTS, added:
 “This report brings together a number of data sources that help us to understand what is happening in the real world on our roads.

“Research shows a proven link between speed choice and crash involvement.

“If we can encourage drivers to drive within the speed limit, through both educational and enforcement-led interventions, we can continue to make our roads safer.”

Many road safety campaigners have called for 20 miles per hour to be made the default speed limit on urban roads. As highlighted here on road.cc last week, national cyclists' orgasiation CTC and the charity 20s Plenty For Us both criticised recent media coverage that suggested that the lower speed limit was ot working due to an increase in casulaties where that speed limit applies, but without taking into account the fact that there has been a big increase in the extent of roads subject to that limit.

The figures analysed in the report also predate the the recent rise in casualties revealed for vulnerable road users revealed by the DfT, particularly children and cyclists.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.