Towards a Rural Speed Hierarchy

Another concept that may sound appealing in theory but in practice would be highly problematical to implement and potentially dangerous

Under the current system of setting and marking speed limits in the UK, any single-carriageway road where there is no street lighting has a default speed limit of 60 mph, often referred to as the "National Speed Limit", in the absence of signs indicating any other speed limit.

This is clear-cut and easily understood, but a problem that is often raised is that it permits speeds of 60 mph along small, often single-track, rural roads, that are not remotely suitable for such speeds.

An answer to this problem that is gaining in currency is the concept of a "rural speed hierarchy", under which speed limits are assigned to roads according to their function, something along the lines of:

  • 60 - major routes with a high proportion of through traffic
  • 50 - intermediate routes with a mixture of through and local traffic
  • 40 - minor rural roads mainly used for local access
  • 30 - built up roads in villages

This view is set out in the Department for Transport document on Development of a Rural Road Hierarchy for Speed Management

Similar views are echoed in the recent Transport Select Committee Report on Road Traffic Speed.

Something along these lines has been achieved in the Netherlands, where there is a clear rural road hierarchy allowing 110 kph (68 mph) on motorways, 80 kph (50 mph) on non-motorway rural main roads and 60 kph (37 mph) on minor rural roads. However, they have a much more comprehensive motorway system than the UK, effectively covering all of what in the UK are regarded as trunk roads, and, being a small country, less need to undertake long journeys on non-motorway roads. They are also able to present a consistent appearance for each road category, with obvious gateways where there is a transition between them, something that would take many years and vast expense to achieve in the UK.

In this country there are two very clear problems with introducing such a system.

  • Firstly, the classification of a road does not necessarily bear any relationship to its quality. Some primary A-roads are very narrow and twisting; many B-roads are as good as nearby A-roads; some stretches of unclassified road are of a high standard and easily good for 60 mph speeds. We don't give roads in dense urban areas 60 mph limits just because they are Class A trunk roads; likewise why should high quality rural roads be given lower limits not justified on safety grounds, simply because they don't have a number? To make such a system credible there would need to be a major revision of the road numbering system, which would be extremely expensive and confusing. And it still wouldn't answer the problem of high-quality rural roads that didn't happen to be major traffic routes.

  • Second, and even more crucial is the question of signing. Currently, unless a sign indicates differently, a road with street lights has a 30 mph limit, a road without them 60 mph. As most built-up roads have street lights, and most rural roads don't, this means that over 90% of the country's road mileage doesn't need any speed limit signs. But, if a rural speed hierarchy was introduced, this would have to be revised. There are already concerns that in some circumstances the system of speed limit signing is insufficiently clear, and it obviously wouldn't be reasonable to expect drivers to know whether they were on an A, B or unclassified road to determine the applicable limit. On the other hand, it would be even more unrealistic to expect speed limit repeaters to be placed at 200-yard intervals along every road in the country.

The DfT document referred to above has a section on Legal Implications which is essential reading for anyone proposing this kind of scheme.

This gives the impression of being a masterly civil service job of undermining a proposal by outlining in great detail the practical problems involved in implementing it, but these problems are certainly real enough.

Two potential solutions to this problem have been suggested:

  1. The default speed limit indicated by the "National Speed Limit" sign could be reduced from 60 mph to 40 mph, with higher speeds permitted by specific signing where felt to be appropriate. If it was assumed that most A and B roads would retain 50 or 60 limits, this would result in a vast increase in speed limit signing in rural areas.

    It is also likely that highway authorities would be distinctly grudging in assigning 40+ limits to roads, and even then generally only 50s, not 60s. The result would be that many roads entirely suitable for higher speeds would be saddled with 40 limits that would be only very infrequently enforced and to a large degree ignored. Despite what some of its proponents say, this option would in practice lead to lower speed limits on thousands of miles of rural main roads. Supporting this idea under the guise of "slower speeds on country lanes" is grossly dishonest and a blatant attack on the use of the motor car.

  2. Roads without centre lining could have a default speed limit of 40 mph, with lined roads remaining at 60 mph. This perhaps has more validity, as it would not cover those unclassified roads that are of high quality, but it is questionable how much impact it would have on real-life speeds. Even with this, there would be a necessity to provide prominent gateways wherever the speed limit changes (which has been achieved in the Netherlands). It would not be acceptable for local authorities to reduce the speed limit purely by removing line markings, or for the limit to change in the middle of a stretch of road purely because the centre line disappears, with no other indication.

But there is also the important issue of to what extent a rural speed hierarchy would be mandatory on local authorities. Surely a key aim of such a policy would be that roads of similar character in different areas of the country should have the same speed limit. Yet, in recent years, some highway authorities such as Suffolk and Oxfordshire have taken it upon themselves to impose 30 mph limits on long lengths of entirely rural road, which would fall outside the scope of anything but the most extreme interpretation of a rural speed hierarchy. If local authorities were given complete freedom to override the policy it would become effectively worthless.

The conclusion must be that it is best to leave well alone. 60 mph may not be an appropriate speed for most small rural lanes, but equally on most of them little or no traffic travels at anywhere near this speed. Where there is a genuine problem, a specific lower limit can be implemented under the current regulations. The point must also be made that police speed enforcement on unclassified rural roads is effectively non-existent, and is likely to remain so except in very isolated blackspots. The speed at which drivers travel is in practice unlikely to vary whether the limit is 10 mph or completely derestricted.

Whatever the speed limit, drivers have a responsibility to travel at an appropriate speed for the conditions, and any version of a rural speed hierarchy would tend to undermine this rather than reinforcing it.

For how it should be done, see my Guide to Speed Limit Setting.

Ironically, in a growing number of locations, we are now seeing a kind of reverse rural speed hierarchy, as highway authorities reduce speeds on main roads, but because of the expense of signing leave the small lanes leading off them at the National Speed Limit. For more details, see Lower Speeds by Stealth.

(March 2003)

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