Rural roads

John Stewart (who is a key campaigner for the Stop Heathrow’s 3rd runway campaign) became RoadPeace Chair in late 1996. He has written a thought piece.  He’s a fantastic campaigner, and now an advisor – his input is immensely valuable to RoadPeace.  Many thanks John for writing this piece.

Like most people in this country, I look at the world through an urban lens. I’ve lived most of my adult life in London. Even when I escape, it tends to be to Brighton, Bournemouth or Hastings.


I suspect our urban lens means we tend to forget what is happening in rural areas and on rural roads. According to research from the RAC, although the majority of casualties (63 per cent) in 2019 occurred on built-up urban roads, the majority of fatalities (57 per cent) occurred on rural roads.


The main reason for this is that rural roads have higher average speeds which often result in more serious collisions. But I suspect it is also because more vulnerable road users like pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and horse riders are more exposed to road danger.


I’ve spoken at hundreds of meetings over the years. Only once did I turn back on my way to a meeting. It was in rural Kent. I had gone by train. Within a few minutes of leaving the station I found myself walking on a narrow rural road, with no pavements or grass verge, facing fast-moving traffic coming round blind corners. I retreated to the safety of the station.


Realistically, all rural roads can’t have the same treatment as urban streets. But more can be done. In particular, speed limits can and should be lowered. It is estimated that about a third of the UK’s population live in urban areas that either already have a 20mph speed limit as the norm or will do so soon.  And many villages are also bringing them in. By contrast, the limit on single carriageway rural roads tends to be 60mph.


Rural roads are also where the highest proportion of young drivers and their passengers are killed. Recent research published by the AA, found that 71% of crashes involving young drivers happen on rural roads. Speed is a factor but these roads, often more sinuous and narrow in nature, with blind bends, dips and other distractions, provide a particular challenge for younger drivers.


The RAC argues for special training for these drivers. I’m sure that is right. But many of these youngsters are using the car because public transport in a lot of rural places tends to be poor to non-existent. Reviving rural bus services could be an important factor in reducing rural road casualties.


The next year or two opens up a real opportunity to cut road danger in rural areas. The Government’s recent Bus Strategy recognized the dearth of rural services. It could be the spur to reversing decades of decline. Next year all new vehicles need to be fitted with on-board speed limiters. That’s the time to cut the 60mph limit on rural roads. And to enforce the lower limit. Quite simply, these measures would save lives.