Traffic is Killing Our Village!

Many rural villages feel swamped by speeding traffic. So what is the solution?

Traffic calming measures and lower speed limits extended out into the countryside are not the best way of dealing with traffic in villages

From time to time I have received e-mails either asking what can be done about speeding traffic in the writer’s village, or suggesting that I do not take such issues seriously enough.

While much of this site is critical of current ill-considered policies on speed limits and speed enforcement, it also strongly supports a responsible and safety-conscious approach to driving. People should drive cautiously and at a moderate speed through villages, and on rural roads should always drive at or below the speed at which they can stop within the distance they can see to be clear, and take especial care in areas where pedestrians, horse-riders and cyclists are present, or are likely to be present. I don’t remotely condone people racing through villages in the manner of Mr Toad.

However, the problem that people perceive in villages is often not as simple as they imagine, and not capable of being remedied by any kind of simplistic quick fix. It must also be remembered that in rural areas, police enforcement of any traffic regulations is likely to vary between very infrequent and totally non-existent, so any solutions must effectively be self-enforcing and depend on the consent of road users.

One of the first things that should always be done when looking at traffic problems in a village is to carry out a proper survey to establish both the volume and speed of traffic. Often what people believe to be the case turns out to be incorrect. If traffic is heavy during rush hour, but light for the rest of the day, the measures to be taken would be different than if traffic was steady throughout the day. Likewise, if most traffic substantially exceeds the speed limit, it indicates a different problem than if only a small minority does so. In the latter case, probably targeted enforcement would be a better option than engineering measures.

It is also often said that “speeding traffic is cutting our village in two”. But would the village be any less cut in two if all the vehicles adhered to the speed limit? Although it goes against people’s first instincts, in fact the speed of traffic has nothing to do with the time people have to cross the road. If there are 6 cars a minute going through a village, the time between them is still 10 seconds regardless of whether they are travelling at 30 mph or 60 mph. Yes, vehicles travelling at high speed may suddenly appear out of nowhere, but the key reason why people feel their villages are becoming fragmented is volume of traffic, not speed.

If villagers find they struggle to cross the road, then the best option would be to lobby their local councillors to install a Pelican or Puffin crossing. Even providing central refuges for pedestrians can make a significant difference. And if they don’t like HGVs thundering past their bedroom windows (and, let’s face it, who would?) then the only long-term answer is going to be a bypass. HGVs don’t really mix with village high streets at any speed.

Reducing the speed limit may seem a good way of slowing traffic in a village, but it is important to ensure that the speed limit is appropriate for the road conditions. See my page on Village Speed Limits for a more detailed discussion of this issue. The government have decreed a standard of 30 mph for speed limits in villages, but their definition of a village is extremely loose, and is likely to result in 30 mph limits being imposed on roads that are only very lightly developed. The character of the road itself also needs to be taken into consideration - 30 mph may well be appropriate for a narrow lane with 50% frontage development, but for a wide A-road with good sightlines 40 mph will probably be more reasonable, and more likely to be complied with.

The boundaries of the speed limit also need to be aligned with the boundaries of development. Extending 30 mph limits well out into the countryside is in fact likely to result in higher speeds in the village core, as drivers will see the limit, regard it as unreasonable, and continue to ignore it even when they enter the built-up area. It is also useful to combine the village name with the speed limit sign, as this gives drivers an additional psychological reason to slow down. “30 - Little Snoring” has more impact than just “30”. But for this to work it is necessary that you can actually see some houses on the other side of the speed limit sign.

Another weapon in the armoury to reduce speed is installing traffic calming measures such as humps and chicanes. I have explained elsewhere why I believe these to be dangerous and counter-productive. People campaigning for humps to be installed in their village should also remember that they will increase noise, particularly from lorries, and the vehicles that will suffer the most damage are those belonging to the villagers themselves rather than those just passing through.

However, there are other less damaging measures that can be taken if the appearance of the road through a village sends a misleading message to drivers about what speed is appropriate. Prominent gateways can be installed at the entrance to the village, ideally combined with the village name and the speed limit sign. These mean that drivers feel they are crossing a threshold when entering the village - although it is essential that they are situated actually where the village starts, rather than half a mile out into the countryside. Within the village, the apparent width of the road can be reduced by lining at the sides or central hatching, and if the road is very wide, build-outs can be installed which also have the benefit of creating defined parking bays. Central refuges can also have an effect in slowing traffic, in particular deterring reckless overtaking within the village, and also help pedestrians when crossing the road.

Another seemingly obvious solution to problems of speeding is to install a speed camera. In general I am fairly sceptical about the benefits of speed cameras, but putting one shortly after the entrance to a village on an otherwise "fast" rural main road is one of the relatively limited situations where their use may be appropriate. It is essential that the camera is clearly visible and is signposted well in advance. However, clearly not every village road can have a speed camera, and there is plenty of evidence that, overall, the widespread use of cameras simply shifts accidents around rather than reducing them, and that they tend to make drivers pay a disproportionate amount of attention to numerical speed at the expense of other more important factors in driving safely. Ideally the road environment should be designed such that a camera becomes unnecessary.

An often overlooked factor that may increase road danger in villages is parked vehicles obscuring the view of the road both for pedestrians and drivers. Installing marked parking bays to make parking more orderly, and perhaps creating a small off-street car park near the village centre, if the land is available, may have a surprising effect in improving safety and making people feel less at risk.

Another problem that is often reported is “rat running”, that is traffic diverting from main roads on to less appropriate roads through villages. It is important to remember that people do not do this for fun, and they can hardly be blamed for trying to find an alternative route rather than sitting for an eternity in a queue. Essentially, it is caused by inadequate capacity and congestion on main roads, so the best remedy for it will usually be to improve the standard of the main road so nobody feels the need to divert. In the short term, obviously installing humps may deter some through traffic, but it is surprising what people will put up with to save time. If improving main roads is not an option, then as a last resort access restrictions can be imposed in a village - either for lorries, or for all vehicles. But this may lead drivers to seek even less suitable alternative routes, and the end result may simply be to shift the problem elsewhere.

In conclusion, there are many things that can be done to improve the traffic situation in villages, but it is essential to define the real problem clearly and work out what the desired outcome is. If this is not done, it is all too easy to plump for the knee-jerk measures of reduced speed limits and humps, which in many ways can end up making the situation worse rather than better. The vast majority of drivers are not maniacs and do want to behave responsibly. There are many measures that can be taken to give them a little help with that without making them feel oppressed.

(October 2005)

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