Reduced speed limits will be coming to Irish roads this year but do they work?

Many European countries have moved to 30km/h zones with a reduction in fatalities

On the eve of Good Friday, 1969, 21 people were killed on the Irish road network, almost twice the number killed on the same day a year before. In some 600 crashes more than 200 people were seriously injured.

These high numbers came two days after the government of the time introduced a blanket 60mp/h (96.5km/h) default limit, recognising that speed was a big safety concern on Irish roads.

The new upper limit followed pilot research on the Naas dual-carriageway – the first substantial length of dual-carriageway opened in the State in 1968. It found a 60mph limit along that stretch of road resulted in crashes halving and casualties being reduced by two thirds.

More than a half century ago this constituted new thinking around speed reduction as a means to reduce road deaths, but it would be decades before there would be any meaningful reduction in fatality rates.


Now, following a concerning rise in road death numbers last year, the Government is again looking at reducing speed limits as part of a wider solution to prevent road deaths. This time the cuts will be far deeper.

But they have not been introduced in time to make a difference on this St Patrick’s bank holiday weekend when road traffic fatalities and injuries typically rise due to the larger movement of people.

By the end of this year, maximum speed limits will be dramatically reduced. Other European countries have done this and stuck with the measures.

With legislation making its way through the Oireachtas, Minister of State with responsibility for road safety Jack Chambers has said he expects the changes to begin at the end of the year.

Default speed limits on national secondary roads will be cut from 100km/h to 80km/h, from 80km/h to 60km/h on rural or local roads, and from 50km/h to 30km/h on roads in built-up or urban areas.

The changes come in the Road Traffic Bill 2024, described as a “short and focused” piece of legislation by the Department of Transport. It also covers penalty point reform and mandatory drug testing at the scene of serious collisions. The Bill is expected to be passed and signed into law in the coming weeks.

Road safety campaigners says a reduction to a 30km/h default speed limit in urban areas is inevitable but only if enforced by effective policy and sold to the public.

“You need political will at the beginning but you also need to work towards buying in public opinion, explaining, telling them it’s for their kids, it’s for themselves, it’s for the environment,” says Antonio Avenoso, executive director of the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC), a Brussels-based non-profit group pushing for a reduction in deaths and injuries in transport in Europe.

Research has shown the exponential risk of speed with the chance of a pedestrian dying if they are struck at 50km/h is four to five times greater than if struck at 30km/h.

A large majority of deaths – 73 per cent in 2017-2021 – occurred on rural Irish roads with limits of 80km/h or more. Urban roads of 60km/h or less account for just over half of serious injuries.

The Department of Transport’s speed review last September showed this increased for “seriously injured pedal cycle users and pedestrians”, with at least eight in 10 injured on lower speed, urban roads.

Since its previous review, more than 10 years ago, many urban areas have introduced 30km/h zones but the department has said this has been inconsistent and now favours a blanket default speed limit.

Much of the debate on reducing speed limits centres on urban areas where speed limits are, for the most part, not obeyed and where vehicles share the roads mostly with pedestrians and cyclists.

The Road Safety Authority, which has been analysing driver behaviour and speed since 2006, has found speed was to blame in 10-15 per cent of collisions and 30 per cent of fatal collisions.

Examining data for 2021 road traffic incidents, the RSA found that 77 per cent of all vehicles broke the speed limit in 50km/h zones over a nine-day period, far higher than in other speed limit zones. (The compliance rate on rural roads was 71 per cent.)

Out of a sample of 8,259 vehicles, the RSA found that in built-up urban areas 78 per cent of passenger cars were speeding. A quarter of drivers broke the limit by 10km/h-20km/h. By comparison, just one in four passenger car drivers broke 100km/h speed limits and even fewer (12 per cent) did so on motorways.

Many other European countries and cities have moved to the 30km/h zone and, according to the ETSC, none have reversed that move. Many have reaped rewards from the change.

Ireland and other European countries, including Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, have set town and city speed limits at 50km/h but those restrictions co-exist with speed limits of 10km/h-30km/h.

A 2023 German study in three cities found average speeds fell but journey times increased. It also reported “clearly positive effects” on noise reduction and traffic safety, and a slight reduction in traffic-related air pollutants. CO2 emissions were hardly affected.

“No significant disadvantages from having a general speed limit of 30km/h could be identified,” it said.

Four years ago, in the Netherlands, limits were reduced from 130km/h to 100km/h on motorways, with some exceptions at night time, while 70 per cent of the country’s urban roads are now 30km/h zones.

Ireland might draw more recent lessons from Wales whose Labour government pushed through 20mph limits (32km/h) last October, sparking considerable political pushback and mixed public reaction.

Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford has defended his flagship policy, even as hundreds of thousands of people signed a petition to scrap it. Drakeford pointed to a “super majority” in support in the Welsh parliament and said the policy would save lives and money for the health service.

But the transition has been turbulent, a petri-dish of road safety policy that exposes its potential for division.

“Frankly I would say: ‘Please stop it – stop it now, don’t let it happen; you are making the biggest mistake in Ireland if you go ahead with this’,” Natasha Asghar, the Conservative Party’s shadow transport minister, told The Irish Times.

She cited a government document, pointing to a potential economic cost of £9 billion (€10.5 billion) for the Welsh reduction.

“There is a place for [20mph limits]. No objection from me on that front. But what the Welsh Labour government here have done is they have introduced this 20mph blanket speed limit and quite frankly it has been the worst mistake politically, financially and economically,” says Asghar, who says she would reverse the measure if elected.

“The amount of hell that this has unleashed upon the people of Wales, I wouldn’t want to inflict that on the people of Ireland.”

The ferocious Welsh debate on the issue could be a sign of what is to come here later this year when smaller figures start appearing in speed limit signs along Irish roads later this year.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times