Down the Hatch

The confusing and ill thought out lining scheme that is blighting our roads

Pointless central hatching on a suburban main road. All this does is give drivers less room to overtake cyclists - but, as pointed out below, overtaking and crossing the hatched area are still entirely legal.

A feature that has been appearing more and more on our roads in the past ten years is wide hatched areas in the centre of the road. Usually they are simply white paint on a grey background, sometimes the background is coloured red, occasionally even green. But there seems to be a lack of clarity as to what they are for, and whether they actually work, and most drivers are totally unclear how to treat them. There are also a number of significant aspects in which they may undermine road safety.

Two reasons are normally advanced to justify hatched areas, neither of which is entirely convincing. The first is that they separate streams of traffic, but how many head-on collisions occur on single carriageway roads anyway, and surely in the vast majority of cases they involve a driver who has recklessly crossed the white line. The second is that they slow traffic down, which may be true to a limited extent, but again is of no value unless it reduces accidents at the same time. On many roads, such as suburban main roads with 30 limits, and rural roads with sub-60 limits, it should raise the question whether the speed limit is set too low in the first place.

However, I have recently seen a document from the Highways Agency concerning so-called "safety improvements" to the A523 between Hazel Grove and Leek that stated clearly that one of the aims of hatched areas was to "deter overtaking". They daren't go so far as to actually ban it on straight stretches of road by painting double white lines (although no doubt that will come) but instead they put in confusing paint schemes that have the practical effect of doing just that.

There is of course one entirely sound and legitimate reason for painting hatched areas on the road, to provide a refuge for vehicles turning right, something that in the past has been a major factor in accidents. However such areas should only extend at most for a hundred yards or so on either side of the right turn, and should not be used as an excuse to paint a wide hatched area for a long distance.

The Highway Code is not entirely clear about wide hatched areas, implying that they are something that has grown up piecemeal over the years and has never been thought through in a logical manner. What it actually says, in Rule 130, is this:

130. Areas of white diagonal stripes or chevrons painted on the road. These are to separate traffic lanes or to protect traffic turning right.

  • if the area is bordered by a broken white line, you should not enter the area unless it is necessary and you can see that it is safe to do so
  • if the area is marked with chevrons and bordered by solid white lines you MUST NOT enter it except in an emergency

The Institute of Advanced Motorists Advanced Driving Manual is rather clearer:

The sanction implied (in the Highway Code) allows you to consider overtaking - but remember that this white line system is generally used on roads with a bad accident record. Overtake at a moderate pace and in such a way that the drivers you pass are not taken by surprise.

Despite this, there is a widespread view amongst drivers that they should not enter hatched areas except in an emergency, even if they are only bounded by a dotted white line, and you will often seen drivers hanging back on a stretch of road with centre hatching when they could easily, and safely, overtake. This is especially true when the hatched area is filled with red tarmac. The markings may be confusing and ambiguous, but they are succeeding in their declared objective of "deterring overtaking".

There are circumstances in which knowledgeable drivers can use hatched areas to take advantage of overtaking opportunities that otherwise might not be available, because most road users don't understand them properly. I have even heard some describe the central hatched area as "my personal overtaking lane". However, in practice the hatched area is likely to fill up with grit and debris, especially if it is rarely used, and sometimes the lining stands so far above the road surface that it inhibits traction and gives an extremely bumpy ride. This is why, while I will not hesitate to cross central hatching to overtake, I am normally very circumspect about overtaking manoeuvres that would mean remaining within the hatched area for a prolonged period.

The planners also seem unclear about whether they should treat hatched areas as analogous to a conventional white line system. In some locations, the hatching is bordered by dotted lines along straight sections, with solid lines around bends, and turn-in arrows before the bends, just as you would expect with double white lines. This clearly indicates that there is an expectation that drivers will carry out overtaking manouevres. However, in others the hatched area bounded by dotted white lines continues unchanged around bends and over blind summits. In theory, this means that drivers can lawfully cross the hatched area anywhere (even where patently unsafe) but in practice it sends a hopelessly confusing message to drivers and is likely to deter them from overtaking anywhere there is central hatching.

Many authorities deliberately place bollards in the hatched area to limit overtaking opportunities. Some years ago (and this was in the early 90s, before this trend became so prevalent) I remember driving along the A38 between Bristol and Gloucester. This must have once been a three-lane road for most of the way, but after the parallel M5 was opened the authorities had turned most of the central lane into a hatched area, and placed a bollard every few hundred yards, making overtaking extremely difficult. This kind of tactic is being employed more and more often, inevitably leading to increased driver frustration and prompting unsafe overtaking manoeuvres.

Overtaking on single-carriageway roads seems to be something that is increasingly frowned upon and regarded as politically incorrect. It is true that rash, badly planned overtaking can be dangerous, but a well-executed overtaking manoevre can be one of the most satisfying aspects of driving and should not pose any undue risk. If overtaking is prevented in locations where it could reasonably be performed, then inevitably drivers will become frustrated and are likely to contemplate unsafe, risky overtakes where they do get a fleeting chance, and to overcompensate when they get the opportunity. A frustrated driver population is not a safe driver population. It seems that, as in so many areas, the authorities want a cowed, docile population who are happy to trundle along in a procession, do what they are told and not step out of line. It is creeping totalitarianism.

Hatched areas can restrict parking and increase the likelihood of damage to parked vehicles. A good example of this can be found on the A34 through Scholar Green in South Cheshire. This road is wide enough to accommodate comfortably two lanes of traffic, plus a line of parked cars on either side. However, a particularly wide hatched area has been painted down the middle, leaving a lane for traffic down either side no more than 14' wide. Parking is still permitted on either side, with the result that vehicles travelling along the road constantly have to pull out into the hatching to avoid parked cars, often no doubt cutting it very fine and clipping their mirrors.

And if you thought the negative effects of hatched areas applied only to drivers, and that they could be beneficial to more "green" forms of transport, think again, as they can also increase the danger to vulnerable road users, particularly cyclists. By narrowing the available carriageway and forcing traffic out to the side of the road, hatching will mean that vehicles may need to pull out to overtake cyclists, rather than being able to maintain a steady This is why many cyclists feel that the space allocated to central hatching would be much better used for a cycle lane at the edge of the carriageway. The fact that hatching is likely to make through traffic travel closer to the edge of the road means that it can also make life more unpleasant for pedestrians.

A further problem with hatched areas, is that however impressive the paint scheme is, the combined effects of rain, dirt and HGV tyres will first dull it and then start to scrub it off entirely. Within a couple of years it will have become very faded and it may be very difficult to discern the original plan. With conventional lining systems it's normally fairly obvious what was intended, but the objectives of a complex and unusual hatching scheme may be completely lost.

The conclusion must be that the whole concept of wide central hatching has not been thought out systematically by the planners, and it has been applied in an inconsistent and often confusing manner. The fact that it is not properly understood by the majority of drivers (and indeed not properly explained by the Highway Code) means that in practice, far from improving safety, it is likely to make the roads more dangerous. One of the key principles behind road markings is that they should be clear and unambiguous, something the authorities regrettably seem to be losing sight of.

If a road is very wide, there are far more constructive things that could be done than installing wide central hatching - for example, in an urban area, marking out parking bays down each side, or even turning it from two lanes to four to increase capacity. Properly thought-out three-lane sections could also do much to improve flow and reduce driver frustration on rural main roads. Although these schemes have gained a bad reputation there is no evidence that they had a higher accident rate than comparable two-lane sections. And if there really is a need to narrow the perceived width of the road to encourage drivers to slow down, then build-outs from the kerb or indeed cycle lanes are better ways of achieving the objective than hatching.

And, if you come across a hatched area that is bounded by dotted white lines, whether or not it has red paint, remember that there is no practical or legal reason why you should not enter it or cross it to overtake, if you can see that it is safe to do so.

Interestingly, the only web link I have come across dealing with central hatching is on a cycling site, The BikeZone. The discussion of central hatching is halfway down the page, but the top section about pinch points is also very relevant.

(May 2001, Highway Code reference updated March 2010)

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