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:
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.
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:
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.