Posted by: wesleyjohnston | August 15, 2014

Peculiarities of speed limits in Northern Ireland

This blog has been written by my good friend Andy Boal who, as well as being a transport enthusiast, is particularly knowledgeable in the fields of public transport and legislation. It is the latter to which we turn our attention here. It all started when he commented that rural roads in Northern Ireland with the National Speed Limit sign, i.e. this one….

NSL Sign

….have no speed limit at all! It’s just the vehicles that do. I thought “Eh?” and asked Andy if he would write a guest blog to explain what he means, which I am delighted to include here. Over to you Andy!

Speed limits in Northern Ireland: why they are the same yet very different from Great Britain

What do you mean? Yes, I know what the white circle with a black line across it means: cars can do 60 on single carriageways and dual carriageways…. what, you mean that cars can do 70 on both dual carriageways and motorways? So that’s why the Bangor-Belfast dual carriageways are marked as 60 not National Speed Limit? Isn’t it the same in Great Britain? Well, then, what’s all this about?

There is a quite interesting difference between Northern Ireland and Great Britain on speed limits, if you’re as much of a nerd as me, and it is a very simple distinction.

We love nerdy distinctions! Please, go on.

In Great Britain, all motorways and dual carriageways are restricted to 70mph, and all single carriageways to 60mph except in built-up areas or where special restrictions are imposed (ie the 40, 50 and 60 speed limits).

In Great Britain, the motorway speed limit is defined in by the Motorways Traffic (Speed Limits) Regulations 1974, and for all other roads the speed limit is set by the 70 miles per hour, 60 miles per hour and 50 miles per hour (Temporary Speed Limit) Order 1977, which was indefinitely extended in 1978.

Sounds simple enough…

In Northern Ireland, however, it is defined in the Motor Vehicles (Speed Limits) Regulations (NI) 1989, which lists all classes of motor vehicles and their speed limits. It states that “A passenger vehicle, car-derived van, motor cycle, motor caravan or dual purpose vehicle not drawing a trailer being a vehicle with an unladen weight not exceeding 3.05 tonnes or equipped to carry not more than 8 passengers” is subject to a maximum speed of 70mph on a motorway or a dual carriageway, or 60mph on other roads.

Schedule 6 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984  is the equivalent of the speed limit regulations in Northern Ireland, but it omits cars and motorcycles.

Okay, so on rural roads in Northern Ireland the vehicle has the speed limit, not the road.

So, the short version is this. If it weren’t for the fact that every public road in Great Britain has a defined speed limit, you would be allowed to drive your car or motorbike at any speed you wish. In Northern Ireland, on the other hand, as soon as you see an NSL sign it means that the speed limit has just ended… except that your car or motorbike is restricted a speed limit of 60 or 70mph depending on the type of road. Different rules, same result.

So why does any of this matter to the rest of us?

Since we’ve been speaking of restricting roads or restricting drivers, the idea has been floated of restricting all non-primary single carriageway roads to 50mph (something similar has been done in the Republic of Ireland). This sounds as simple as making new regulations, but it isn’t.

Why not?

There are three complications to this. The biggest one is the number of roads which used to be primary and are now secondary (see, for example, Belfast Road (Bradshaw’s Brae) between Dundonald and Newtownards) but are still festooned with green “primary route” signs.

I see – because only primary A-class roads should have green signs. All the others are supposed to have white signs. The ones on Belfast Road should have been replaced with white signs in 1978 when the A20 Newtownards dual-carriageway opened 36 years ago….

Primary road sign Newtownards

Green primary sign on a non-primary road. The horror! Made worse by the incorrect inclusion of a C-number on the adjacent sign.

The second complication is roads like the A44 Drones Road from Cloghmills towards Ballycastle, which has been a primary route since 1994 but still has large numbers of white non-primary signs.

White signs on primary road

Twenty years after the A44 became a primary route, the bottom two signs are still white…

Okay, I understand. If a driver can’t tell whether the road they’re on is primary or non-primary, they wouldn’t know whether the speed limit was 50 or 60.

The third complication is the number of roads that simply have the wrong coloured signs or none at all. How do you know when you come to the end of a minor road whether the road you are joining is a primary road if the junction isn’t important enough to need signs?

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 20.34.11

Mmmm. Arriving at this main road, is it primary or non-primary? Hard to tell… If a blanket 50mph limit was applied to all non-primary roads, how would you know what the speed limit was once you joined this road? [the answer is primary, incidentally]

For those three reasons, you’d have to erect 50mph signs at the entrance to all non-primary roads (plus repeaters), at massive cost. It’s not worth it, and to be honest, would just punish those who can drive along long straights at 60mph before slowing down to navigate bends at a safe speed.

So there you have it. The peculiar way Northern Ireland’s speed limits are set up in law means that it’s the vehicle, not the road, that has the limit in rural areas. Therefore, while it sounds simple enough to apply a 50mph speed limit to all rural roads that aren’t “main” roads, in practice it would be extraordinarily complex and expensive.

Many thanks to Andy Boal.



  1. Is a GPS Camera installed in vehicle and calibrated reliable? Not according to Road safety department at Montgomery Road. If not why install them?

  2. excellent blog

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