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  • The UK’s rural roads are considerably more dangerous than its motorways
  • Most dangerous is the A537, which is nine times riskier than the average ‘A’ road
  • Road safety charity Brake believes cutting speed limits would reduce accidents

What makes a road dangerous? Speed might seem the obvious answer, but the fastest roads aren’t always the most dangerous. According to a 2013 report by the UK’s Road Safety Foundation, 99% of the country’s motorways are classified as ‘low-risk,’ while 97% of its single-carriageway roads are not. 

Measuring to Manage identifies northwest England’s A537, which runs between Macclesfield and Buxton, as the UK’s most dangerous road. The seven-mile stretch of tarmac winds its way through the Peak District National Park. Bounded by dry stone walls or bare rock faces for the most part, its sharp bends, uphill climbs and steep falls from the carriageway make it nine times more risky than the average ‘A’ road, the report says. 

“Because there is less traffic, some drivers feel a false sense of security on rural roads,” says Sarah Martin from road safety charity Brake, which works together with Allianz in the United Kingdom. “Crash statistics show that, per mile travelled, rural roads such as the A537 are the most dangerous places for all kinds of road users, and the majority of vehicle occupant deaths happen on these roads."

Between 2007 and 2011, there were 44 serious or fatal crashes on the A537, up from 35 in the preceding five-year period, a rise at odds with the national trend. Across the same timeframe, the number of people killed on Britain’s roads fell 31%, from 16,533 between 2001-2005 to 11,457. Speed limit reviews, improved signs and traffic calming measures have all played their part, as has continual progress in vehicle safety, such as better crash protection and collision avoidance systems. 

However, the sheer number of hazards to contend with on roads such as the A537 means that further action is required, says Martin. They may often look quiet, but on rural roads, you can never be sure what is around the next bend, from pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders, to slow farm vehicles, livestock or wild animals. They are also used by large vehicles such as buses and quarry trucks, which take longer to stop. Factor in the Peak District’s exposure to the elements and drivers have plenty to contend with. 

The speed limit for rural ‘A’ roads such as the A537 is often 60mph (100km/h): too fast, says Martin, and a major factor in the increased risk rating. “A study of rural single-carriageway roads estimated that a 10% increase in mean average speed results in a 30% increase in fatal and serious crashes. At 60mph, your stopping distance is 73 meters, or three tennis courts, meaning you won't be able to stop in time for an unexpected hazard, such as someone on foot or bike."

Brake focuses on promoting road safety awareness, safe and sustainable road use, and effective road safety policies via campaigns and community education. But, as Martin stresses, authorities must play their part: “In addition to greater education in schools on the dangers of speed, we’d like the government to lower the default speed limit on rural roads to 50mph and enforce lower limits where there are particular risks. Off-road cycle and walking paths will allow people to exercise and visit neighboring communities, or get to school or work, in safety.”

Another solution would be to widen and straighten roads such as the A537, so as to minimize some of the dangerous elements. However, Brake believes this would merely invite faster speeds and more traffic, increasing the risks for other road users. “Besides, the character of the UK’s rural road network shouldn’t be altered,” says Martin. “The priority should be to reclaim these roads as pleasant places for people who live in the communities connected by them.”

Geoff Poulton

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