Speed kills but here's why jury is still out on Edinburgh's 20mph limit – John McLellan

Many reasonable people welcome measures like 20mph speed limits, but not everyone is happy about them

With disruption to the world cycling championships, activists glued to the road at Grangemouth, others clambering over the Prime Minister’s family home, and Robin Harper saying his former colleagues in the Scottish Greens have “lost the plot”, cars and carbon are the big political battlegrounds. Independence is so 2014.

Not one to avoid the limelight, Edinburgh University’s professor of global public health, Devi Sridhar, has entered the fray over low-emission zones and traffic reduction policies, with a Guardian column attacking Rishi Sunak because he has “taken aim at these green policies, no doubt believing that this could be one way to attract votes in the nearing general election”. Set aside the fact the Prime Minister’s scepticism about hardline climate-related policies predates the Uxbridge by-election (the Department for Energy and Climate Change became the Department of Energy Security in February) who’d have thought a politician would look at an election result and pay heed to what voters are telling him? Shameless.

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As someone who lent academic weight to the then First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that Scotland was handling the pandemic much better than England, Prof Sridhar became a lightning rod for the transformation of a health crisis into a game of political and constitutional one-upmanship. It continued last year with her pandemic book “Preventable”, in which she praised Ms Sturgeon and appeared to criticise the devolution settlement by claiming Scotland should have been able to close its borders in the summer of 2020, but couldn’t impose New Zealand-style closed border isolation because the Scottish Government didn’t have the cash to withstand the economic impact.

In her Guardian article, Prof Sridhar turned once again to Scotland to show how things should be done. “Measures such as reducing speed limits to 20mph have been shown to work in reducing severe injuries and deaths from cars,” she wrote. “In Edinburgh, road deaths dropped by 23 per cent and serious injuries fell by 33 per cent a year after its 20mph speed restriction was introduced.” Those numbers seemed on the high side and such claims from someone as respected as Prof Sridhar deserve some scrutiny.

The cross-city 20mph policy was rolled out in four phases from May 2016 and was completed in March 2018, so year-on-year, like-for-like comparisons are not straightforward, but Department for Transport data indicates some progress was indeed made, with 23.8 fatalities or serious injuries per 100,000 people in Edinburgh in 2018, down from 28.6 in 2017. If the policy was successful, certainly in the way Prof Sridhar claims, then the trajectory should have continued as more people got used to the restrictions, or at least the same level maintained.

Instead, the DfT data shows a leap to 37.3 in 2019, indicating a 56 per cent rise in serious or fatal injuries in the first full year since the 20mph policy was in force, not a 33 per cent drop. Further, Transport Scotland data says there were six fatalities in the City of Edinburgh area in 2019, compared to five the previous year, a 20 per cent increase, not a 23 per cent fall.

Of course, all road deaths are tragedies which should be, to borrow the title of Prof Sridhar’s book, preventable, but the number of serious road casualties has been falling for years, thanks to improved vehicle design as well as road changes. It’s undeniable that speed kills, especially on dangerous trunk roads like the A9 where sufficient safety improvements have not been introduced, but very few deaths on Edinburgh roads are caused by ordinary drivers doing a bit over the limit.

Rishi Sunak, with the recently elected Conservative MP Steve Tuckwell, should pay heed to what voters in Uxbridge and South Ruislip told him in the byelection (Picture: Carl Court/PA)Rishi Sunak, with the recently elected Conservative MP Steve Tuckwell, should pay heed to what voters in Uxbridge and South Ruislip told him in the byelection (Picture: Carl Court/PA)
Rishi Sunak, with the recently elected Conservative MP Steve Tuckwell, should pay heed to what voters in Uxbridge and South Ruislip told him in the byelection (Picture: Carl Court/PA)

For example, two cyclists killed by trucks at the Sir Harry Lauder Road junction in 2019 and 2020 because of a bad road lay-out and blind spots, speed was not an issue when little Xander Irvine was hit by a woman in her 90s on Morningside Road in 2020, or when a young woman was run over by a bus after her bike became trapped on the tram track on Princes Street in 2017. The death of Jonny Smith on the Maybury Road in 2018, like that of nurse Jill Pirie on the Old Dalkeith Road in 2016, was the result of criminality, and boy racers still regularly screech along my 20mph street.

The most up-to-date information on 20mph effectiveness in Edinburgh is a three-year, post-implementation evaluation report for the city council’s transport committee last August, comparing total figures for the three years before introduction with the three years after, claiming four fewer fatalities and 22 fewer serious casualties. But that included the lockdown period when there was virtually nothing on the roads, so the three-year comparison is meaningless without more detail and no basis for correlation.

Yet, according to Prof Sridhar, “the improvements in quality of life for those of us who live here should be held up as a shining example of what is possible for all of us with the right political will: longer, healthier and happier lives”. I had no idea Edinburgh people are living longer because the average driving speed is down from 23.77mph to 21.92mph, and I can only presume she lives in a different part of town to me, or has access to hitherto unavailable research, because I can find no evidence of Edinburgh people’s lives being happier because the council has accelerated its anti-car programme. If anything, it’s the opposite in those areas most directly impacted like West Craigs and Corstorphine, because of a reluctance to find reasonable compromises.

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Maybe the mood amongst the extremists who inhabit Twitter has lightened, as it no doubt does when activists disrupt sports events or sit on Rishi Sunak’s roof, but the rest of us are just getting on with making ends meet. Many reasonable people do indeed welcome measures like 20mph speed limits, but what will make Scotland a happier place is reasonable policies based on sound evidence, not propaganda.



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