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Motorway network unfit for 80mph speed limits, say safety experts

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

Poorly-maintained and inadequate roadside protection and the rapidly rising risk of shunt crashes from the sheer volume of traffic using England’s motorways are key factors of safety concern in the report, which is published while the government continues to consider a review of the motorway speed limit.

Last autumn, then transport secretary Philip Hammond promised formal proposals to raise the speed limit after highlighting the government’s desire to “make sure that our motorway speed limit reflects the reality of modern vehicles and driving conditions, not those of 50 years ago”.

“We must consider the huge economic benefits that can be created by shortening journey times,” he said.

But in a new report, the Road Safety Foundation finds that currently motorways do not provide enough protection to drivers and car occupants to consider raising the speed limit. Research shows widespread faults in run-off protection which are doubling the rate of death and serious injury where there is missing protection. It shows shunt crashes rise exponentially with increased traffic flow, yet only a handful of motorway sections like the M25 and M42 have the electronic controls with hazard warning and variable speed limits that are needed to manage the intense flows common across England’s motorways.

Road Safety Foundation director Joanne Marden, who oversaw the new research, said: “The vehicle fleet has become safer in the last decade through better crash protection. But 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.”

Run-off protection is critical in preventing deaths and serious injuries, she said: “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,” said Marden.

The report notes the argument that respect for the 70mph limit is poor and does not dismiss proposals to raise motorway speed limits but concludes: “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 the 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.”

England’s motorways – the facts:

  • They account for 8.5% of all major roads
  • Half of England’s motorways carry more than 30 million vehicles a year
  • Motorways account for 6% of all England’s road deaths
  • Motorways account for 800 serious crashes per year, resulting in 115 deaths and a further 800 serious injuries
  • Between 2001 and 2010, motorway deaths fell by 42%, while on roads generally, deaths fell by more than 47%
  • Shunt and run-off crashes together account for around half of motorway serious crashes

The rate of death and serious injury on motorways depends on features such as:

  • protection between traffic in opposing directions
  • junction layout
  • quality of roadside protection (eg posts, trees or steep embankments too close to the roadside)
  • presence of a hard shoulder for use in an emergency
  • bends and sight lines
  • the quality of signing and marking
  • the skid resistance of the road
  • level of traffic flow and presence of a mix of road-user groups
  • actual traffic speeds and the speed limit


Readers' comments (1)

  • The report seems to say that, as some motorways are overcrowded, the limit should be kept at 70mph on them all. I agree that congested motorways are far more dangerous than those well within their design capacity. Being retired I can choose when I travel and I can avoid peak periods, when driving at speeds in excess of 70mph are, in my opinion, relatively safe.
    French motorways have different speed limits for wet conditions, which seem to be respected. It need not be a "one size fits all". Could the new matrix signs which have appeared on so many motorways not be used to display different limits depending on local conditions?

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