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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 4th December 2009
Here’s a test for motorists. What is the speed limit on Marshall Way, the new link road between North Street and Blossomgate, passing the new Booth’s supermarket building?

If you said 30 miles an hour, you’re wrong. Like much of the centre of Ripon, it’s actually 20.

Limits of 20 mph were once very rare. Ten or so years ago there was one through the centre of Eton, to protect the scholars going between lessons along its narrow streets – and that was about it. In recent years, though, there has been a general realisation that in built-up areas such a limit is very helpful in reducing noise, antisocial car-driving behaviour, road-rage and, especially, accidents – 50 per cent of accidents happen within 30 mph limits. As Elizabeth Barclay’s letter about Ure Bank Top in last week’s Gazette reminded us, a 20 limit can be vital for the well-being of whole areas. Such a limit can also encourage people to use public transport and improve to quality of life in town centres.

Studies have shown that 75 per cent of British people support 20 mph limits in residential areas. Of course, such statistics need careful handling. It’s all very well to be theoretically in favour of something – but many people may agree with actions that do not directly affect them, while being bitterly opposed if they actually impinge on their ‘freedom’. Perhaps few would argue against lower speeds outside schools, but try to stop them getting to their home at the speed they want, and you may have an argument on your hands.

Nevertheless, there is quite a lot of evidence – usefully summarised by the ‘20s plenty’ campaign on their website (www.20splentyforus.org.uk) – that the advantages of such limits greatly outweigh personal disadvantages. And, while residential areas have been the first to adopt 20 mph as the norm, town and city centres have increasingly seen the value of them, too. If you have ever stood on the street corner outside the Help the Aged, where North Street curves into Old Market Place, you will know how dangerous it can be, and why lower speeds matter.

In some places a 20 mph limit might not make a great deal of difference. In the 1880s the average speed of London traffic was 12 miles an hour. The latest surveys say that it is now – any guesses? 15? 20? No. It’s 11.9 mph. Plus ça change . . .

In Ripon, too, you may argue, it’s hard to go more than 20 in much of the city. Not true. Watch the traffic on Trinity Lane, North Street and especially Marshall Way, and you will see that the 20 limit which exists on all these roads is regularly flouted.

Why should this be? There will be people who deliberately ignore the 20 limit. There are some who don’t care about the speed they are doing. But there are probably many more who pass through our streets in total ignorance of the fact that they are in a 20 mph zone at all.

Sometime soon there will be reminders of the limit with 20 signs painted on the road on North Street and Coltsgate Hill. There are, of course, already signs at the entrance to the 20 zone. As well as Marshall Way, North Street south from the junction with Coltsgate Hill, Trinity Lane and all of Church Lane from Holy Trinity Church to Park Street, the zone includes all the Market Square, Westgate and Park Street as far west as Old Park Mews, Blossomgate, Kirkgate and Duck Hill and the roads between Blossomgate and Coltsgate Hill.

It’s all very well having a designated zone, but it is no use unless it is observed. One way to ensure that happens would be speed bumps, but although the regulations seem to say that 20 mph limits should be ‘self-enforcing’ – that is, something should be in place to regulate the speed of the traffic – that is not what most people would want.

The answer really is, as it is to so many of the problems with traffic, rigorous enforcement. If drivers who flout the law knew that were likely to be stopped or summonsed, they would soon stop breaking the law. Speed cameras might help, but there are arguments about whether they are permitted to regulate a 20 mph limit. Enforcement is a very difficult area – the police would probably argue that their limited resources are better spent on more serious crimes; people affected by dangerous roads would argue that breaking the limit can be a serious crime.

In an ideal world, of course, the answer would be even simpler – everyone would obey the rules. But even if that doesn’t happen (and we won’t hold our breath) it may be as well to remember that, though it’s a wide and inviting road, Marshall Way is firmly within the 20 mph zone. And you never know; one day you might just find a speed camera pointed at you . . .

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