Know your limit: speed limits in the UK

  • Brief History
  • Today’s Limits
  • Minimum Speeds
  • Different Vehicle Limits


A brief history of the speed limit in the UK

Speed Limits: If you are a motorist in the UK, your speed will be limited on every public road on which you drive.

They’ve always been there, right?

Well, not exactly.

Interestingly, the speed limit actually predates the motor car, in the UK.

Perhaps the most infamous limit was created by the Locomotive Act of 1865 –  the one that said that a vehicle that was propelled by steam or any other type of power, which was not animal propulsion – required someone walking in front of it carrying a red flag to warn others of its approach. The act also limited vehicles to 4mph on the open road and 2mph in towns, villages and cities.

In 1896 the Locomotives on Highways Act made local authorities responsible for setting their own speed limits and it is reckoned these averaged something around the 14-15mph mark. To celebrate this change, November of that year saw the Emancipation Run from London to Brighton. Since its rebirth in 1927, this has become the famous annual RAC London-Brighton run, open to cars built before 1905.   

Between 1903 and 1920 the speed limit was raised to 20mph, until in 1930 the Road Traffic Act did away with speed limits altogether. To limit hooligan road behaviour, however, new penalties were introduced for reckless, dangerous and careless driving.

In 1934 the now familiar 30mph limit was introduced for built up areas, but you could still, for over 30 years, drive as fast as you liked on open roads… provided you did it safely.

As vehicle speeds rose, it was evident that more action was needed and, after a period of consultation and trial limits, in 1967 the 70mph national speed limit was set, which remains with us today.

There have however, been periods where speed limits have altered. The oil crisis of the 1970s saw the limit on single lane open roads reduced to 50mph and 60mph on dual carriageways, but these were both raised by 10mhp in 1977. Motorways remained at 70mph throughout.

Speed limits today

Anyone driving in the UK today, is likely to have noticed that speed limits have evolved in recent years.

Speed limits in built up areas (i.e. where there is street lighting and indicated by a sign with a red circle with the speed inside it in black) nominally at least, remain at 30mph, unless the limit signs tell you otherwise and, increasingly, in many urban areas, they do. With the introduction of local speed limits, large swathes of our cityscapes have become 20mph zones and the trend seems to be expanding. With ever-increasing use of speed monitoring cameras our speed limits, more than ever before, really do what they say.

The national speed limit on single carriageway roads remains at 60mph, and dual carriageways at 70mph, unless otherwise signed. Roads, where the national speed limits apply are indicated by a white circular sign with a diagonal black bar running through them.

Perhaps the biggest change has come on our motorways with the introduction of variable speed limits and “Smart” motorways.

Variable speed limits are pretty self-explanatory and the idea is that they can adapt to varying traffic conditions or incidents by lowering or raising the speed limit at any time, in order to make the roads as safe as possible and keep traffic flowing at its optimum rate. Again, the use of speed cameras, whose trigger point adapts in step with the limit that is shown on the road signs - either above or to the side of the road - helps enforce the limits that are set at the time.

Smart motorways take things a step further, as they are able to open and shut lanes of traffic at any time, which, in conjunction with the variable speed limit and enforcement cameras, aim to further help the flow of traffic and to adapt to any abnormal situations by limiting speed – and lanes – to suit.  

Minimum speed limits

There are also, nowadays, minimum speed limits. Though a relatively rare phenomenon in the UK, they can be found on stretches of road where driving too slowly could be likely either to incur a higher risk of an accident, or where it might lead to increased congestion. A typical place to find an official minimum speed limit might be in a tunnel and it will be marked by a blue circular sign, with the minimum speed set within it.

It is a popular misconception that there is a minimum speed limit on motorways. There isn’t officially, however, if you are travelling too slowly it can be considered dangerous and will certainly attract the attention of the police, with the possibility of being prosecuted for dangerous driving.

Different speed limits for different types of vehicle

Finally, built-up area speed limits and local speed limits apply to all traffic. However, if you are driving a lorry, motorhome, bus or coach, or are towing a trailer or caravan you will be subject to different limits on roads where the national speed limits apply. If this is the case, and you are not already aware of the limits, you should check which limits apply to the vehicle you will be driving before you set out on your journey (

Article from in the category: Magazine