‘Motorways are not fit for 80mph limit’

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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.

The report finds that currently motorways do not provide enough protection to drivers and car occupants to consider raising the speed limit.

There are 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.

Director Dr Joanne Marden, who oversaw the new research, 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.”

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

“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.

“These ‘unusual’ circumstances include pedestrians on the hard shoulder, roadworks, extreme weather, spilt loads and rear-end shunts when free-flowing traffic breaks down.”

The report outlines the negative economic effects of a higher speed limit, which include increased vehicle operating costs through higher fuel consumption; increased crashes and crash severity, resulting in raised crash costs; and the increased cost caused by delays from crashes.

The Road Safety Foundation recognises 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.”