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Legal guide to UK motoring, sections for law enforcement, Driver licensing, learner and new drivers, buying and selling, speeding fines, owning a vehicle, wheel clamping, traffic information.
          Speed limits in the UK


Speed Limits

A brief history of speed limits

Between 1865 and 1896 locomotives on the highway had to be preceded by a pedestrian carrying a red flag and were subject to a speed limit of 2mph in cities, towns and villages and 4mph elsewhere

On 28 January 1896, Walter Arnold of East Peckham, Kent became the first person in Great Britain to be successfully charged with speeding. Travelling at approximately 8 mph, he had exceeded the 2 mph speed limit for towns. Fined 1 shilling (5p) plus costs, Arnold had been caught by a policeman who had given chase on a bicycle so began one of the most lucrative ways of making money by Local Authorities and the Exchequer

The maximum speed limit was then increased to 14mph and again, in 1903, to 20mph.

In 1930 speed limits for cars and motorcycles were abolished.

In 1934 a general 30mph speed limit was imposed on roads in built up areas (effectively roads with street lighting) which remains to this day.

Other roads had no speed limits at all. It was not until 1965 that a national upper limit of 70mph was introduced for all roads, including motorways.

Since 1977 the speed limit for cars and motorcycles on dual carriageways has been 70mph, with a 60mph speed limit on single carriageways.

In 1999 local authorities were given the powers to introduce a 20mph speed limit without requiring the consent of the Secretary of State.

Speed Limits are not only governed by the type of road you drive on but the type of vehicle you are driving on that road it is the drivers responsibility to know the limits applied to his vehicle at all times

Built up area (Street lit)
Single Carriage
Dual Carriage
Cars & motorcycles (including car derived vans up to 2 tonnes maximum laden weight)
Cars towing caravans or trailers (including car derived vans and motorcycles)
Buses and coaches (not exceeding 12 metres in overall length)

Who has responsibility for speed limits?
A central body called the Highways Agency sets speed limits on the motorway and trunk road network. The Government provides advice to traffic authorities (County, District and Borough Councils, but not Parish Councils) on the setting of local speed limits. It is for those authorities to decide what is the most appropriate speed limit for their roads based upon local considerations and circumstances.This would usually reflect factors such as accident history, traffic flows, road traffic mix, levels of adjacent development and road geometry.They can set speed limits from 20mph to 70mph inclusive.

Speed Limits at Roadworks
Speed limits are often lowered at roadworks.There are valid reasons for doing this.The safety of those dedicated to repairing our road network is paramount and therefore vehicle speeds will need to be lowered where workmen are likely to be present. In addition, the carriageway will be narrowed to allow work to progress. Such narrowing will inevitably mean it is appropriate to reduce vehicle speeds. Lower speed limits will help to achieve this.

Dual Carriageways
There is sometimes some confusion as to what a dual carriageway is, especially for those vehicles restricted to speed limits below that for cars, such as HGVs and Coaches. In short, a dual carriageway is a road that is separated by a central reservation.A central reservation is anything other than a pedestrian refuge that separates vehicles going in one direction from vehicles going in the other direction. It should be noted that although it is more usual to have two or more lanes in each direction, the number of lanes is not specified, i.e. it is the presence of a central reservation rather than the number of lanes that determines whether or not a road is a dual carriageway.

Different Speed Limits and how to recognise them

20mph Speed Limit
The 20mph speed limit is predominately used in urban areas. Commonly you will see them in town centres, high streets, residential roads and in the vicinity of schools.The aim of this limit is to reduce vehicle speeds that allows for the presence of vulnerable road users; cyclists, children and the elderly. More often than not a 20mph speed limit will come in the form of a ‘zone’.A zone will contain traffic calming features, usually road humps that force drivers to reduce their speed to around 20mph. Research on the effectiveness of these zones has shown that casualties can fall by up to 70% where they have been introduced.

30mph Speed Limit

The 30mph speed limit is predominately used in urban areas (and more recently in many villages) and usually is indicated by the presence of a system of streetlights. The presence of street lights is the way we recognise this speed limit and it is the reason why you do not see, apart from where the limit starts, 30mph speed limit signs. Some believe this to be an odd way of indicating a speed limit, but really it is simple. If there are streetlights and no signs to the contrary a 30mph speed limit is in force.

There are a number of unlit roads where a 30 mph speed limit applies. In these circumstances the traffic authority must place 30 mph repeater signs.

40mph and 50mph

These two speed limits were introduced in the 1970s and are predominately used in non-built up areas or in built up areas where a higher speed is both safe and appropriate. In addition to signing the beginning of the speed limit, traffic authorities must also place speed limit repeater signs at regular intervals along the length of road being enforced.The driver should therefore be in no doubt of what the speed limit is for the road being driven on.

The National Speed Limit

The national speed limit is indicated by a round sign showing a white background with a diagonal black stripe across it. For the majority of vehicles it means 60mph on single carriageway roads and 70mph on dual carriageway roads (as detailed above, some vehicles are restricted to lower speed limits).

This speed limit works on the same principle as the 30mph speed limit in that it is not signed apart from where the speed limit starts. It is predominately used along the rural road network.Again, recognising it is simple.Where there are no streetlights and no signs to the contrary, the national speed limit is in force.The speed limit on a motorway is 70mph unless otherwise indicated.

But do speed limits make sense?
Most people believe in the need for there to be speed limits; but who decides? The system may not be perfect but it is not arbitrary. Detailed guidance on setting speed limits is provided to all traffic authorities.Their Highway Engineers and Road Safety Officers using their knowledge and experience will apply the guidance.They will also consult the police who have the task of enforcing speed limits. This ensures the limits are set appropriately.

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