British Roads

Facts for driving in the UK

British Roads

British roads are among the most crowded in Europe. The south-east of England is the most congested region in Europe and, in Western Europe, only Italy has more vehicles per mile than the UK.

The most significant increase in the last two decades has been in the number of women drivers, which doubled between 1975 and 1993. However, the UK has a relatively low level of car ownership compared with some other European countries. Traffic density in the major cities and towns is particularly high and results in frequent traffic jams.

During rush hours, from around 7.30 to 9.30am and 4.30 to 6.30pm Mondays to Fridays, the traffic flow is painfully slow in many areas, particularly on busy motorways, e.g. anywhere on the M25 London orbital motorway, on the M1, M3 and M4 motorways into and out of London, and in and around most major cities. Most town centres are chaotic during rush hours, particularly central London, where the average traffic speed is around 10mph (it takes as long to cross most city centres in a car as it did 200 years ago in a horse and cart!). Journey times have doubled in the last ten years and the UK’s motorists spend an average of around five days a year in jams, which are estimated to cost British industry billions of pounds annually.

Central London has introduced a congestion charge to counteract this problem. It operates from 7am to 6pm on Mondays to Fridays (excluding bank holidays) and costs £8 a day if paid by midnight the day before travelling and £10 if paid by midnight the day after travelling. The area of central London affected is clearly marked by signs and cameras read car number plates and check them against a database, therefore there’s no need for a physical ticket or pass of any sort. The charge can be paid at any of the following: at selected shops, petrol stations and car parks; by post; by telephone; by SMS text message from your mobile phone; at BT Internet kiosks; or on-line ( ). The fine for non payment is £100 which is reduced to £50 if paid within 14 days.

Traffic jams are also created throughout the UK by the pervasive road works, particularly in towns and on motorways – plastic traffic cones are a common sight on the motorway. (New legislation is to be introduced to reduce the frequency and length of disruptions caused by road works). Traffic jams have spawned a number of navigation gadgets to warn drivers of hold-ups in order that they may avoid them. Outside rush hours and towns, car travel is often trouble-free and you may even come across a motorist with a smile (rather than a scowl) on his face, although you may need to travel as far as North Wales or Scotland to see him.

Bad road network

The UK’s road network suffers from the lack of investment in the railways, which has resulted in millions of tonnes of freight thundering through towns and villages, destroying roads and buildings, and polluting the environment. A greater investment in off-road public transport would also cut the number of private vehicles on roads, particularly in cities. Successive British governments have responded piecemeal to the UK’s transport problems and have failed to strike a balance between investment in roads and public transport. Most motorists would like to see more investment in public transport to ease road congestion (and get all the other motorists off the roads).

Planners are finding it impossible to build enough roads to cater for the expected rise in traffic (the number of cars is set to double in the next 25 years). The newest motorways (such as the M25 orbital motorway around London) are already hopelessly overcrowded because road planners badly underestimated the density of traffic and built too few lanes. The M25 (opened in 1986) was designed to handle 80,000 vehicles per day and already it averages around double this, rising to over 200,000 on some sections. Road-widening schemes are under way on many main roads, which simply add to the traffic problems (at least in the short term).

One of the biggest problems created by road traffic is pollution (including noise pollution) which is strangling London and many other cities, where levels are already well above international health limits on hot days. An intense public debate is under way about the best way to take the UK’s transport system into the 21st century. Many experts believe that drastic measures are needed to curb car use by banning most traffic from city centres, while at the same time providing inexpensive, frequent and fast public transport between and within cities. There are already plans to ban cars from busy towns on days of heavy pollution, when asthmatics, bronchitis sufferers and the elderly are particularly at risk. There are also proposals to keep traffic out of villages and away from beauty spots, in an attempt to stop traffic pollution destroying them.

There are around 3,500 deaths a year on British roads and over 300,000 injuries. These figures, although unacceptably high, are among the lowest casualties of any developed country (it’s difficult to have an accident when you’re stuck in a traffic jam). A quarter of deaths in road accidents involve drivers under the age of 25 (who hold 10 per cent of licences) and thousands of young drivers and their passengers are maimed for life each year. The UK has no additional speed restrictions for young and inexperienced drivers, who can also drive high-performance cars immediately after passing their driving tests. Women drivers have half as many accidents as men, but usually cover fewer miles.

Traffic information is available from motoring organisations and via the television teletext service. The Automobile Association’s Roadwatch telephone information service provides the latest information on the state of the motorways (0900-340 1100 – calls cost 60p per minute) and main trunk roads throughout the UK. The AA also provides a wealth of other telephone information, including Weatherwatch, road works, motoring law, hints and advice, new and used car information, and touring information (for general information 0870-600 0371).

This article is an extract from Living and working in Britain. Click here to get a copy now.

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