Speed Limits And De-restricted Signs Don’t Add Up

All public roads in Britain have a legal speed limit. What then are so-called ‘de-restricted’ speed signs about?   I spend many hours every year on motorways and travelling between various towns (especially at Christmas: no trains – safest and greenest way to travel – so we have little choice but the car).   But must road experience be confusing as well as so un-eco?  Is it time to change the way vehicle speed controls operate?  And maybe also time to challenge current road culture?  More RoSPA, less Jeremy Clarkson perhaps?

Everybody, or so I assume, now knows that the maximum speed limit on UK motorways, or any other ‘fast’ public road, is 70 miles per hour (m.p.h.). But does everyone know exactly the speed limits on other parts of the road system?  Most (but not all) built-up roads have a limit of 30 m.p.h.; and some smaller domestic routes are now 20.  There is however far more to it than that.

The speed guessing game
With this in mid, what should you read into a so-called de-restricted sign? There are general rules about speed limits for different types of road, but road safety and speed restriction isn’t supposed to be an elaborate game of ‘guess the speed limit’. Speed limits are there to stop accidents, not to test whether drivers have read and in  detail instantly recall the right parts of the Highway Code (though of course they should).

Since there is no public road in Britain which doesn’t have a speed restriction, why are there ‘de-restricted signs’ at all? Why can’t every speed limit sign simply display fair and square the maximum speed permitted at that point?  The answer is quite complicated.

Varying contexts, varying maximum speeds
In reality, the ‘de-restricted’ sign in the UK means ‘national speed limit’, which changes according to location.  Ideally all speed signs (and speed cameras and their warning / approach signs) would display the maximum speed permitted, but one difficulty here is that in some circumstances speed limits on the same stretch of road vary according to type of vehicle.

Nonetheless, I have even seen ‘de-restricted’ signs up on the roadside immediately before (fully operating) speed cameras; mixed messages at best. The roads are no place for unnecessary driver confusion – already much in evidence on the internet – and there is likewise no place anywhere for road signs which give little constructive, useful information. Either use every speed sign to give clear information, or, in the name of uncluttered minds and roads, take the information-lite ones down.

Road users not in cars are at greatest peril
Given that in the UK in 2010, 241 people were killed in crashes involving someone exceeding the speed limit and a further 180 people died when someone was travelling too fast for the conditions, driver clarity on speed limits is obviously critical.  Children are most at risk, and this risk, for everyone, is reduced considerably in 20 m.p.h. zones.

One response to these stark facts might be to replace ‘de-restricted’ notices with a proclamation to drivers that It’s Not Just Your Road.  Easy to forget, in the comfort of one’s vehicle, that one is driving a tonne or two of metal on a road which belongs to every citizen, car-owner, cyclist and pedestrian (however old or young) alike.

Challenge the culture
‘It’s Not Just Your Road’ signs may be a way off, but that general idea perhaps leads us to more realistic ways of changing road behaviour.  In this, the media don’t always help.

Television programmes like Jeremy Clarkson’s Top Gear promote a vastly over-excited perception of what driving a car is ‘about’.   Clarkson, the BBC’s own website tells us, first achieved this by realising that “people were less interested in being told about a car’s valve timing, compression ratios and tyre sizes, than they were in knowing whether a) said car would improve their general quality of life and b) if being seen driving one would make attractive people want to sleep with them.”

Presumably the majority of these ‘people’ are men at small risk of toddling across the road in front of a car.

And develop the technology
But tut-tutting at Top Gear – unless accompanied by serious Government Health Warnings and a massive ‘Don’t Waste Carbon / Fuel’ campaign (both unlikely under the present administration) – will of itself change nothing.

More realistically, the technology for better and more responsible use of roads is already largely available and should be properly engaged as a matter of urgency.  SatNavs and GPS equipment offer a way forward in that they now indicate speed and speed limits as well as location, and increasingly they can also detect the presence of other road users nearby.

At present such equipment is optional in cars, but it should surely become legally enforced as a permanent vehicle fixture, with the further requirement that in most circumstances it must also be operational whilst driving.  Good brakes and no hand-held mobiles are already the law; so why not some version of speed alert SatNav?  (I await all the reasons from drivers which may now be forthcoming about Why Not…)

Shifting to safety
But most importantly, thinking has got to change when it comes to roads and driving. Vehicle fuel is now even more a cost – to our budgets and to our embattled environment – when speed is excessive; and inappropriate speed on the road is a danger to life and limb.

A serious civic conversation (such as that promoted by RoSPA) on road speeds and on the inclusive right of everyone to use public roads in safety is probably well overdue.

Road signs from half a century ago, especially ‘de-restricted’ signs, are not the way forward. Unless there are genuinely compelling reasons not (?), let’s get rid of them and introduce more intelligent ways of ensuring proper speed awareness.

[This post was updated from 2005 to 2011, to include new ideas and information.]

Posted on December 28, 2011, in People And Places, Politics, Policies And Process, Sustainability As If People Mattered, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Jeremy Pritchard

    The speed derestriction signs used in GB are the same as used globally, from Malaysia, India to NZ and Australia, Germany. The sign and its ‘design’ parameters are internationally owned and governed by “The UN Convention on Road Traffic, Signs and Signals” (all editions) where the sing is Catalogued as Sign C,17a its UN legal meaning contracted by all states parties (who often ‘forget’ such things) is “END OF ALL LOCAL PROHIBITIONS IMPOSED ON MOVING VEHICLES”.

    The German sign is the same as GB’s etc, except they use a series of diagonal sloping lines rather than the solid – perfectly okay, as the criteria for this sign under the Catalogue number outlines the parameters for the given meaning.

    What GB SHOULD use instead, in order to cease a local speed-limit and signal a fall to ‘the national maximum’, is the UN Sign Catalogue Number C,17b – an END SPEED-LIMIT sign.

    This sign is similar to the speed de-restriction, except it contains within the circle and its diagonal band/s – a number representing the ceasing speed-limit.

    The word DE-restriction in english means to ‘free’, not impose a restriction.

    NZ, some Australian STATES (fixing), GB are in error in use of the speed derestriction sign.

    Sure, the UN Convention on the matter will be updated to fix a few things with it within 5 or so years from now. It is the ONLY sign for global consumption that is intended to cease ALL speed restrictions, now – future ‘articles’ will allow for ongoing speed restriction of certain categories of license and driver when they pass a (//) sign.

    Australia’s NT has reintroduced (//) to sections of its highway network, so no top speed marker, and underneath the (//) symbol a sign is attached (black print over a yellow ground) reminding drivers to “DRIVE TO CONDITIONS”. Be sure – NT doesn’t tolerate idiot speeds and poor, DUI or drug driving.

  2. I would be very interested in contacting the person who wrote this to discuss a serious issue relating to a stretch of road I live on which I have resent ly discovered has gone from a 50mph to a re de restrictive sign because of a road diversion from a motor way to a a road which is causing heavy trucks and cars to speed as this signs then leads into a 40ph. It is causing great issues of speeding and safety and also causing issues with properties due the vast speed that the trucks are doing when passing our row of housrs and the council are not doing anything about it.

  3. Hilary Burrage

    Thanks for this Alan (and James). Indeed. Hence my reference to ‘derestricted’ in quotes – and my starting with the statement that all public roads in Britain do in fact have a speed limit.
    THAT’s why I find the ‘derestricted’ sign so unhelpful.
    These signs have got to be one of the worst examples on ‘non-communication’ – and on such an important, direct subject – which anyone could find.
    There’s a sign not far from here with a derestricted / national speed limit sign actually on the same pole as a speed trap notice… which means it’s at a dangerous point in the road where the last thing we need is any doubt about what the maximum speed should be!
    When it’s safety which is the foremost aspect, I’m sure we’d all agree immediacy and transparency are the first, and quite vital, requirements…. The aim is to avoid accidents, not to engage in IQ, memory or observation tests as if it were some sort of game.
    As James says, there may be more than one speed limit, depending on the sort of vehicle you’re driving; but that’s less common than not. And where it does apply, why not signs that say that too? Still much better than just relying on people to remember or know from the book – when we know all too well that not everybody works like that, whether they should or not.
    We need to keep it simple and straightforward if we’re serious about safety.

  4. The sign you refer to does in fact denote the ‘national speed limit’. Many years ago if I recall correctly it mean ‘derestricted’ but that has now changed.

  5. But the dangerous situations aren’t the roads to which the national speed limits applies (not derestricted), but the city roads which are clearly limited to 30mph, where that limit is universally ignored. And what’s more, people who try to keep within it are subject to all sorts of bullying tactics from more impatient drivers.
    I’d rather that resources were focussed on enforcing in town limits. The national speed limit after all varies accoding to the type of vehicle you are driving, and the type of road you are driving it on. That makes a BIG road sign!

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