30 MPH Speed Limit Sign

This is by Rhodri Marsden in last week’s i paper.

This week in 1935 saw the introduction of 30mph speed limit signs i the built-up areas across the UK. Motorists weren’t happy about this, or indeed about any of the measures introduced by Leslie Hoe-Belisha, the Liberal minister for transport in Ramsay MacDonald’s National government. The driving test, the belisha beacon, the rewritten Highway Code – these were all innovations seen by many drivers as indulging “pampered pedestrians” and completely unnecessary. Hore-Belisha disagreed. Previous speed limits for cars had been abolished on 1 January 1931, partly because no one pad any attention to them, partly because motoring organisation had had great success in disputing evidence of speeding in court. But this led to a huge spike in fatalities; 1934 saw 7,343 pedestrian deaths, the biggest tally ever recorded i the UK.

Hore-Belisha described this as “mass murder” and started a pedestrian- safety campaign. “Why such concern over 7,000 deaths a year?” boomed Tory MP John More-Brabazon. “More than 6,000 people commit suicide every year and nobody makes a fuss about that.”

Hore-Belisha nevertheless introduced the 1934 Road Traffic Act, writing the 30mph limit into law. Notices appeared advising that “pleas of ignorance on the part of drivers cannot be reasonably entertained,” and warned of unmarked police vehicles that would pursue any car overtaking them at speed.

This warning was effective – although some continued to make their displeasure felt through direct action. “A boy angler, fishing in a muddy pond at Swanwick, Hants,” reads one newspaper report from March 1935, “Brought out eight 30mph signs which had bee removed from their supports in various parts of the county.” But the sign endured; it’s still the UK’s most common speed-limit sign.

So now you know where the strange name for the beacon comes from too. Astronomically high suicide rates back then. Nothing to do with the economy, I suppose?

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