As I’m sure most of you already know, the Department for Transport recently made a decision to increase the speed limit for HGVs on single carriageway roads in Britain to 50mph.
One of the arguments made for this policy was that of safety. The intention is to reduce the speed differential between HGVs and other motor traffic from 20 mph (the difference between 60 mph, and 40 mph – the previous limit for HGVs) to 10 mph. It is asserted that this will reduce the temptation to overtake HGVs in dangerous situations.
The Department for Transport states that
The change to the national speed limit on single carriageway roads will modernise an antiquated restriction, which is not matched in most other European countries, including some of the other leaders alongside the UK for road safety (eg the Netherlands and Norway)
It is true that this change will bring the UK more into line with the Netherlands, which has a higher speed limit for HGVs of 80km/h (~50mph) on single carriageway roads.
However, I would like to argue that this change – this reduction in speed differentials between HGVs and other motor traffic – should form just the start of a comprehensive approach to road safety that reduces danger for all road users, based on the Dutch system of Sustainable Safety, or Duurzaam Veilig. Rather than just one isolated measure, the UK should bring its entire road network, and the way it is designed, into line with the Netherlands.
Sustainable Safety is all about prevention – preventing crashing from occurring, and, secondarily, reducing the risk of serious injuries when collisions do occur.
One of the core principles of this approach is homogeneity – equalising, as much as possible, the mass, speed and direction of vehicles, to reduce collision risk. In particular, fast objects should not share space with slow ones; and vehicles travelling at speed should not be travelling in opposing directions, without separation. Likewise measures should be taken to separate bodies of unequal mass; for instance, heavy vehicles like buses and lorries should be not be sharing the same space as pedestrians and cyclists. The basis for this approach – and other Sustainable Safety measures – is that human beings are fallible, and that the environment we travel in should respond to that fallibility, rather than expecting us to not make mistakes, ever.
Although this approach is only a few decades old – launched in the early 1990s in the Netherlands – the Dutch have made great progress in applying Sustainable Safety to their road network. They have removed speed differentials, reclassified road types, and improved the forgivingness of their roads and streets. SWOV estimate that, from 1998 to 2007, Sustainable Safety measures had reduced the number of deaths on Dutch roads by 30%, compared to a situation in which these measures had not been implemented.
Meanwhile Britain languishes far behind, with a road network totally unsuitable for the few vulnerable users who are brave enough to venture onto it.
The contrast with the Dutch road network – open to all users, of all ages and abilities, regardless of their mode of transport – could not be more stark.
As it happens, in raising the HGV speed limit on single carriageway roads to 50mph, the DfT has, accidentally or otherwise, made a tiny, tentative step towards applying Sustainable Safety on Britain’s roads – the speed limit differential between HGVs and other motor traffic has been reduced.
But this is, plainly, nowhere near enough. Sustainable Safety principles should instead be applied comprehensively and consistently across Britain’s road networks, ensuring that all road users are travelling at similar speeds, and that if they are not, that they are provided for separately.
What would this mean in policy terms?
- Speed limit differentials between all forms of motor traffic should only exist where vehicles have an opportunity to overtake each other safely, without coming into conflict with oncoming traffic – on motorways and dual carriageways, or where specific overtaking locations are provided, with central reservations, or barriers. Overtaking should be performed in lanes with motor traffic travelling in a uniform direction, rather than in lanes which carry oncoming motor traffic.
- On single-carriageway roads where the speed limit for HGVs will be raised to 50mph, sustainable safety dictates that all motor traffic should also be limited to 50mph – a reduction from the current 60mph limit. This uniform lower speed limit should be accompanied by design features that encourage drivers of vans and cars to adhere to it. The risk of dangerous overtaking – cited as a justification for the increase in the HGV speed limit on these roads – would be reduced greatly by such a move, as all motor traffic would be subject to the same speed limit, and travelling at a more uniform speed.*
- It is absolutely essential that this uniformity of speed of motor traffic on the road network is accompanied by the provision of high quality, separate routes for road users that travel at substantially lower speeds – people walking, cycling, and riding horses, as well as agricultural traffic. It is not at all appropriate for these users – generally travelling at no more than 20mph – to travel in the same space on single-carriageway roads as vehicles travelling 30mph faster or more; or indeed in the same space on dual carriageways, which have even higher speed limits.
- Not only would the construction of these separate routes greatly increase the safety of these vulnerable road users, they would also serve to make the journeys of motorists safer, smoother and less stressful.
- On roads where separate routes for slower users cannot be provided, or where it is not cost-effective or appropriate to do so, measures should be taken to reduce through motor-traffic, and to encourage motorists to use faster roads (roads where, as above, pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders will have separate provision.)
- This universal 50mph limit should apply on main roads, with a 40mph limit elsewhere. As with the reasons set out above, this uniformity is on the grounds of homogeneity of speed, and again serves to reduce the temptation to overtake dangerously.
Naturally enough, I am coming at this issue from a cycling perspective, but I hope it is clear from the above proposals that these measures would benefit everyone who uses the road network, either on foot, on horseback, on bike, or at the wheel of any kind of motor vehicle.
It would make journeys by foot or by bike considerably safer, and far more pleasant, but just as importantly the same would apply for journeys being made by motor vehicle. The stress of having to deal with overtaking slow-moving agricultural traffic, or people cycling, would be removed. Journeys would be smoother, safer and more predictable. It would also genuinely reduce any (legal) incentive to overtake HGVs in situations where specific overtaking opportunities have not been provided – all motor traffic would be travelling at approximately the same speed on these roads. Only on roads designed with safe overtaking opportunities would different categories of motor vehicle have different speed limits.
We would have a humane road network, that is safe for all, rather than the current one that effectively excludes the vast majority of users who aren’t travelling in motor vehicles. In addition, it would make the journeys of people in motor vehicles safer, and more straightforward.
This needs to happen. That’s why I have started a petition calling on the Department for Transport to develop and implement these policies for Britain’s roads.
*In some limited circumstances, a 60mph limit for all motor traffic could be retained on single-carriageway roads (for instance, long distance routes where higher speeds might be justified), provided design measures have been put in place to eliminate the danger of head-on or crossing conflicts.