England’s motorways are ‘unfit for 80mph’

12.00 | 14 May 2012 | | 10 comments

England’s motorway network is not safe for an 80mph speed limit, according to a new report from the Road Safety Foundation.

Poorly-maintained and inadequate roadside protection and the rising risk of shunt crashes from the volume of traffic using England’s motorways are key concerns in the report, ‘Unfit for 80’, which is published while the Government continues to consider a review of the motorway speed limit.

In autumn 2011, Philip Hammond, former secretary of state for transport, stated the Government’s desire to make motorway speed limits reflect the reality of modern vehicles and driving conditions, and to consider the economic benefits of shorter journey times.

However, the Road Safety Foundation report finds that motorways do not currently provide enough protection to car occupants to consider raising the speed limit.

The new research shows widespread faults in run-off protection which, according to the Road Safety Foundation, are doubling the rate of death and serious injury where protection is not provided. It also shows shunt crashes rise exponentially with increased traffic flow, yet only a handful of motorway sections have the electronic controls with hazard warning and variable speed limits that are required to manage intense flows of traffic.

Dr Joanne Marden, director of the Road Safety Foundation, says: “The vehicle fleet has become safer in the last decade through better crash protection. At motorway speeds, the car alone cannot protect the human body. The car has to work with the motorway’s protection systems such as safety fencing to absorb high speed crash energies.

“In the next decade the greatest potential for reducing deaths is on higher-speed roads outside built-up areas. This will be delivered through crash avoidance technology and road engineering catching up to complement improved vehicle crash protection.

“Our cars provide 4-star or 5-star crash protection but too many of our motorways rate only 3-star with major weakness in run-off protection.

“England’s most heavily trafficked motorways can carry a million vehicles within a week. But a one-in-ten million combination of circumstances can arise every three months. Even though they may seem minor, the rate of exposure to any risk is so intense that even minor flaws in motorway layout or safety provision are likely to have serious consequences sooner rather than later.”

Dr Marden continued: “Drivers who want to are already travelling at 80mph when they can. Economic benefits only arise if ‘80 means 90’ and opinion surveys show no public support for that. However, large economic benefits arise from fixing motorways systematically rather than raising the speed limit.

“If 80mph is to be trialled, it must be on controlled motorways such as sections of the M25 and M42, because England’s busy motorways cannot cope with 80mph without enforcement and the ability to lower speeds at busy times, bad weather, congestion and other hazards like spilt loads and crashes ahead.”

Click here to read the full report.


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    Just one note about Honor Byford’s observation: Norway’s maximum speed limit is 100 kph. How can their research have anything to say about speed transference for raising the max limit from 70 mph to 80? It is a very bad idea to trust scientific “research” that hails from Norway in any subject that is remotely political (gender research, global warming research, traffic research). Sorry.

    Rune, a victim of low speed limits in Norway
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    Why do we not consider adopting the French system where the speed limit is 130KPH in good weather automatically reduced to 110KPH in rain or reduced visibility? With electronic signage now on many Motorways surely we can be more flexible?

    Chris, Wiltshire
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    If the speed limit on Motorways is to be increased to 80mph, what we are really stating is that it will be acceptable to drive at 90mph as most drivers already believe 80mph is the unwritten speed limit on motorways.

    Honor Byford’s concern about speed transference to other roads is absolutely valid and Andrew is quite right to point out that some drivers with higher driving skills such as David can cope admirably and safely at higher speeds because he has been trained to do so.

    The other point I would make is that we still have a fairly large proportion of older cars on the motorways that whilst they could travel at these speeds, in an emergency their braking and suspension systems would not cope as well as newer vehicles, putting the driver and other road users at greater risk.

    Charles Dunn RoadDriver.co.uk
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    Of course 80 mph is safe for UK motorways. UK motorways are more than safe to do well over 100 mph. So may people break the 70 mph limit showing that 70 mph is far, far, far too slow. If you don’t like the fact that motorways are going to have a higher speed then don’t use them – simple.

    steve from doncaster
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    In an analysis of the 2006 rate of deaths per billion vehicle kilometres on EU motorways, Germany was placed 8 out of 19 member states. Great Britain was placed at 4. Germany’s autobahn death rate at that time was 50% higher than GB. (France was placed 6).

    This report also evidenced that, where a mandatory speed limit was introduced on sections of autobahn, collisions reduced from between 25 and 50%. It concluded: “empirical evidence indicates that all instances of introduced speed limits on German motorways have caused very large casualty reductions.”

    Importantly, it also evidenced the principle of speed generalisation: research in Norway shows that higher permitted speeds on some roads generalise to adjacent roads. This is very important and is a factor that we have already raised with DfT. If 80mph becomes the legal limit on our motorways, drivers will soon consider this equally acceptable on other roads as well; roads that are not engineered for those speeds.


    Honor Byford, North Yorkshire
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    David, as a police driving instructor your skill level is very high, unlike Mr and Mrs Average. You make a good point but roads are designed for Mr and Mrs Average so if we want to increase the speed we need to either increase the skill level of the users, or increase the protection the system provides when errors occur. Roads are roads, they are neither safe or unsafe until they are used, therefore the safety issue is the interaction between users, vehicles and roads. Any road is safe used by someone like yourself.

    Andrew, Cambridge
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    Bryan only mentioned German Autobahns, not their entire road network. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_autobahns:

    “The overall road traffic safety of German autobahns is comparable to that of other European highways”.

    Considering that “more than half of the total length of the German autobahn network has no speed limit at all” and “The average speed traveled on the autobahn in unregulated areas … is about 150 km/h”, it would seem that reduced speed limits elsewhere may not have produced the benefit so widely claimed.

    Dave Finney – Slough
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    Sory Bryan, the German roads have a diabolically higher rate of accidents than any British road. Stats on European accident rates are availablke on the web – have a look and see just how good our record is compared with many of our cousins abroad.

    bob craven Lancs
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    Likewise – as an ADI, I completely agree that the roads themselves are safe enough – it’s the lack of awareness and/or skill of others that holds this process back. Consider accidents on German auto bahn compared to the UK. Unless I’m mistaken, statistically, they have fewer rta’s and fewer fatalities? Could it be that with appropriate driver training, and an overall greater respect for others, that we could easily cope with a higher speed limit? Just an opinion……

    Bryan, Northern Ireland
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    AS a former instructor at a Police driving school I have safely travelled many miles at very high speed on motorways, A, B, and unclassified roads. It is not a case of the roads themselves being unfit for 80 mph; it is the case that the majority of drivers are not fit for that, or indeed any other, speed.

    David, Suffolk
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