A recent report from the Fietsberaad shows that merely having lower speed limits is not enough to achieve adequate safety for cyclists or other road users.
The Netherlands now has over 40000 km (25000 miles) of roads with a 30 km/h (18 mph) speed limit (out of a total of 120000 km of road). These roads are safer than 50 km/h ( 30 mph ) roads, but not as safe as they used to be. The number of cyclists and pedestrians injured and killed on 30 km/h roads is rising as the lower limits have been applied more widely. Drivers have also become more familiar with the lower speed limits and break them more often. In the last ten years, as the proportion of roads with the lower speed limit has grown, the injury figures have more than quadrupled on 30 km/h roads. These have gone from from 2.4 to 11.7 serious woundings per 1000 km of 30 km/h road. Two thirds of accidents involving children 11 and under occur as they cross roads.
Meanwhile, always a decade or two (or four) behind, Britain is just starting to get to grips with the idea of 20 mph ( 32 km/h ) speed limits, and the police have announced to errant drivers in advance of implementation that they don't intend to enforce the new limits...
I should explain that I think lower speed limits, especially on residential roads, are a fine idea. They make the environment more pleasant, including more pleasant for cycling and they do play a part in improving safety. However, the benefit of changing speed limits alone only goes so far. This is being given far too much emphasis in countries which are trying to get something for nothing in terms of growing the cycling rate. If you want more cyclists, you need to address such things as subjective safety and directness of cycle routes. You need not just the benefit of lower speed limits, but the much greater benefits which comes from the whole package of sustainable safety measures. Merely putting up a different speed limit sign on a busy street doesn't achieve much in the way of safety for cyclists if their routes remain shared with drivers. Motor vehicles need to be excluded from roads used mainly by cyclists.
The Netherlands still has the safest cyclists in the world, and despite the large number of vulnerable road users, Dutch roads vie to be the safest roads overall in the world.
Do Dutch drivers stick to limits ?
The simple answer is 'no'. Just as everywhere in the world, drivers in the Netherlands break laws that they think they'll get away with breaking.
The photo shows a road on my commute which has a 30 km/h speed limit. I always ride my bike along this section above the speed limit, but even if I'm riding at 35 km/h or more, almost every car still passes me. Dutch drivers are very much like those elsewhere. Speeding in this location lead to the only incident of anything approaching road rage which I experienced in five years of living in the Netherlands.
Also read about how speed limits are being reduced in rural areas.
If not just lower speed limits, what else is important ?
Campaigns based only on speed limit reduction can never achieve the scale of change required to make the streets and roads of a country safe for everyone to use. Lower speed limits are just one tool out of a number which are required to create the needed change.
Amongst the other things which the Dutch do to increase the safety and convenience of cycling are unravelling motor-routes from cycle-routes, building very high quality cycle-paths, allowing cyclists to avoid traffic light junctions, and making it easy to cross the road. All these things come under the umbrella of "sustainable safety" and they particularly benefit the next generation. Note that pedestrians also benefit from sensible policies, not just "cyclists".
After criticism, Cambridge police retracted their statement that they would not enforce the law, but a few years later the Association of Chief Police Officers in the UK again said that they would not enforce lower speed limits.