Britain's PM is among those decrying 'war on motorists' in appeal to suburban voters
Off the motorway near Cardiff, a giant red metal dragon looms over Wales's main convention centre — but there's now a joke that the country's famous national symbol has been usurped by a new creature: the snail.
Wales, one of four countries that make up the United Kingdom, has become the first to drop the speed limit from 30 mph to 20 mph, or roughly 32 km/h, in most built-up areas.
Critics complain that the measure has slowed traffic to an unbearable snail's pace.
"As a driver, I find it very frustrating," said Sarah Criddle, a civil servant in Cardiff, the country's capital. "I've noticed on my commutes to work that even on roads that are not 20 mph, the traffic is backing up."
Stephen Plaice is among more than 450,000 people — roughly one in four Welsh drivers — who've signed a petition calling on the Welsh Parliament to revoke the measure.
"It will help very few people but will cost industries billions. The biggest cause of death is poverty, not air pollution," he told CBC News.
This past week, some Welsh motorists staged "go slow" protests on the country's highways, travelling at 30 mph, or 50 km/h, to show their displeasure with the lower limit.
Ian Evans, another disgruntled Welsh driver, even printed up bumper stickers that replaced the Welsh dragon with a red snail on the usual white and green background.
'Big difference to people's lives'
Introduced by Welsh Labour, which controls the country's Parliament, the slower speed limit — a longtime goal of advocates pushing to get people out of their cars and riding bikes and walking — initially had strong multi-party support. Parliamentarians passed a law endorsing the new speed limit in December.
Pilot projects had been conducted on many roads before the new speed limit took effect throughout the country.
"Ten miles an hour is a small change, but it makes a big difference to people's lives," said Christine Boston, the local Welsh organizer for Sustrans, a U.K. charity whose goal is to make cities more friendly for cyclists and pedestrians.
"An individual hit by a car travelling at 30 miles an hour is five times more likely to be killed or seriously injured than if they're hit by a car travelling at 20 mph," she said in an interview with CBC News.
The drop in the speed limit, which began on Sept. 17, affects all roads in built-up or residential areas of Welsh towns and cities. Exemptions to the lower limit are possible only if they have very low pedestrian or cyclist traffic. Speed limits on highways and other rural roads are not affected.
In reducing the speed limit, Wales has followed the lead of Spain, which similarly dropped its speed limit to 30 km/h in urban areas in 2019.
It has since reported a 10 per cent drop in pedestrian injuries — although reduced traffic due to COVID-19 lockdowns has meant it may be a few years before a full picture of the impact emerges.
British PM opposes reducing speed limits
In the weeks since the slower limit took effect in Wales, however, opposition has intensified, fuelled by none other than British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
The Conservatives, who have governed the United Kingdom for the past 13 years, must call a national election within the next 14 months — and part of Sunak's appeal to suburban voters has been to stress that he's opposed to measures aimed at getting them out of their cars.
"I'm slamming the brakes on the war on motorists — it is as simple as that," Sunak said in an interview this past weekend.
He criticized such "hare-brained schemes" as lowering the speed limit to 20 mph and said efforts to create low-traffic neighbourhoods should be paused.
Welsh 20-mph speed limit draws backlash
Wales has reduced most speed limits to 20 miles per hour (32 km/h), which is drawing backlash from many drivers and delivery companies. But proponents say the evidence shows it isn't slowing most down trips by that much.
The leader of Welsh Labour issued a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, to take the prime minister to task.
"This isn't a blanket restriction," Mark Drakeford, who is also first minister of Wales, said. "Speed limits on a large number of Welsh roads are unchanged, with journey times taking up to a minute longer. This will save lives."
But Conservatives in Wales say businesses are telling them that Drakeford's "minute longer" claim is misleading.
"If a driver used to make 30 deliveries, they'll now deliver only 20 because of the 20 mph limit," said Natasha Asghar, the Conservatives' shadow transport minister in the Welsh Parliament, called the Senedd.
"Employers will have to hire more people to do those deliveries which aren't being done on that particular day."
A poll carried out by YouGov last year suggests that across Britain, 48 per cent of people support lowering speed limits, compared with 39 per cent who are opposed.
In Wales, Christine Boston, the Sustrans campaigner, said that in the first two weeks of the lower speed limit, the feedback she's received suggests most people are either welcoming the change or are prepared to give it a chance.
"In my community, there is a notable difference in traffic speed. The community feels safer, and it is clearly safer to travel by foot or on bike."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.
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