Back in May, the European Commission made a range of suggestions to Member States to help them save energy in response to price increases caused by Putin’s war in Ukraine, including a call for local, regional and national authorities to reduce speeds on motorways and in urban areas.
On safety grounds, ETSC has been calling for formal recommendations on appropriate speeds from the European Commission for some years, and the suggestion was backed by the European Parliament in a report adopted in October 2021. The European Commission has, in the past, issued a formal recommendation on drink-driving limits, which resulted in several countries taking action to reduce the maximum permitted levels for different categories of road user.
The Commission’s May ‘Save Energy’ paper does not have the status of a formal recommendation, and the Commission did not mention any specific speed limits for different road types. But it was, at least, recognition that lower speeds could save energy, as well as saving lives. In September, Kristian Schmidt, the newly appointed EU coordinator for road safety told a meeting of the European Parliament’s transport committee earlier this month that the Commission would be monitoring the impact of the suggestion.
So, how are Member States reacting to the idea? In June, ETSC wrote to all 27 Member State transport ministers to ask. Eleven replied, with a mixed range of responses which can be summed up as “we’re working on it”, “we’ve already done it” and, in one case, “thanks, but no thanks”.
We’re working on it
Bulgaria said its new National Road Safety Agency takes the view that maximum speeds on Bulgarian roads should be reduced, “taking into account the European experience”. It also pointed to a new draft law published in April which would reduce the maximum speed on motorways from 140km/h to 130 km/h.
Estonia replied that “more political discussions are needed to reach decisions, and we hope that the results will be reflected in next year’s road safety strategies”.
Greece’s Deputy Minister of Transport told ETSC the Greek National Strategic Plan will include the aims of reducing rural roads to 80 km/h from 90 km/h currently, with the establishment of a maximum speed in urban residential areas of 30 km/h.
Latvia’s deputy state secretary said that the highest speed on major roads in the country is 110 km/h, and Latvia’s first motorway, which is under construction, will be limited at 120 km/h. She said in “areas near schools, kindergartens, et cetera”, the permitted speed limit is 30 km/h, and in residential areas – 20 km/h, adding that there is “a discussion” about reducing the general speed limit in urban areas to 30 km/h.
The Slovenian minister of infrastructure told us that he is “carefully studying” the possibility of introducing the recommended speed limits, in order to prepare the “best solution for Slovenia”.
We’ve already done it
Denmark pointed to its approach of adapting speeds according to the specific local circumstances, stating that the default speed limits of 80 km/h on rural roads and 50 km/h on urban roads are frequently lowered – with 70 km/h and 60 km/h rural limits, and 30 km/h urban speeds being applied in many cases. The Danes also highlighted a “strong and long tradition” of planning and designing streets for all road users. “In the Danish towns and cities, the primary streets and roads are to a large extent equipped with unidirectional cycle tracks or cycle lanes next to the sidewalk”, they commented.
Similarly, the transport minister of Luxembourg said he fully supports “the idea of reducing speed on our roads” but would continue to act on a “case-by-case” basis. He noted that many parts of the rural network are limited to 70 km/h and municipalities are “encouraged” to reduce urban speeds to 30 km/h, with 20 km/h in shared space areas.
The Netherlands minister of infrastructure noted that the country reduced the speed limit on motorways to 100 km/h (between 06:00 and 19:00) in March 2020 in line with the speed on major ‘trunk’ roads. The maximum speed on roads outside built-up areas is 80 km/h, but ‘access roads’ outside built-up areas are usually set at 60 km/h. In urban areas, around 70% of roads have a maximum speed of 30 km/h, but ‘low-traffic areas’, where children often play in the street, have a maximum of 15 km/h. The minister also noted that the government has commissioned a study on the design of through roads in built-up areas to help municipalities that want to move to 30 km/h limits on that part of the network.
Spain said that the country “fully endorses the principles of the Safe System approach”, which were “central to the new Road Safety Strategy” presented on 9 June. It said that 10,000 km of interurban roads have had a lower speed limit of 90 km/h (down from 100 km/h) since the end of January 2019, and that during the first year of application, deaths on rural roads decreased by 10%. The ministry also underlined Spain’s recent move, in May 2021, to reduce the default urban speed limit on single-carriage roads to 30 km/h across the country – a world first. Deaths on urban roads also declined 10% in the first eight months of application, according to government data.
Sweden pointed to its adoption of Vision Zero way back in 1997 and its policy of determining speed limits based on the technical standards of roads and vehicles “so that the human tolerance against external forces is not exceeded.” The government also pointed to its leading role in the Stockholm Declaration on road safety which emphasises the importance of speed management measures.
Thanks, but no thanks
An official from the German ministry of transport said that the Federal Government “does not believe that introducing a general speed limit on motorways is expedient” and that “mobility policy must strike a fair balance between respecting the citizens’ rights to individual freedom and imposing the necessary road safety requirements.” The official also said that “German motorways are amongst the safest in the world”, though compared to European countries, Germany only ranked 10th in a ranking compiled by ETSC in 2015. He said that the ministry would like to give local authorities “more flexibility in their traffic management” but “a general 30 km/h speed limit in such areas should not be the objective.” He also said the ministry “does not believe that such a speed limit on thoroughfares makes much sense, either”.
The governments of Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Slovakia did not reply.
Commenting on the responses, Antonio Avenoso, Executive Director of ETSC said:
“The laws of physics apply equally to every EU Member State. Our suggestion that the EU should formally recommend maximum limits of 120 km/h on motorways, 80 km/h on rural roads, and 30 km/h in urban areas, is sensible and pragmatic; some of the safest countries have lower limits than those already. There can be absolutely no justification today for default urban limits of 50 km/h where motorised traffic mixes with pedestrians and cyclists, standardised rural road limits that are way too high on countless stretches nor unlimited motorway speeds.”
“We are grateful to the countries that responded to our survey, and are willing to work with any government that wishes to take action on speed. There are many examples of good practice across Europe, it would be such a wasted opportunity not to look, listen and learn about what works in other places with an open mind.”