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Do we need lower speed limits on rural roads?

A speed camera road sign in KentDeaths on rural roads are a serious problem. Are lower speed limits the answer?

Compared to crowded motorways with many drivers over the speed limit, or busy town centres crammed with cars, bikes and pedestrians, rural roads can seem idyllic and safe.

But figures from the Department for Transport tell a different story.

In 2010, 68 per cent of road deaths in Britain took place on rural roads.

Careless driving

This is for a variety of reasons. Drivers, especially young drivers often drive more carelessly on rural roads as they believe those roads to be safer because they are quieter.

Other factors include the narrowness and lack of pavement in most rural roads and the frequency of bends, according to an accident analysis carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory.

But the government is now proposing to make it easier for local authorities to cut speed limits on certain rural roads to 40mph.

These would include roads with many bends or junctions, and those used more frequently by cyclists or pedestrians.

Country lanes 'forgotten'

"The problem is the government has been focusing its road safety efforts in urban areas," says Ralph Smyth, transport campaigner at the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE).

"Country lanes have been forgotten about and at the moment some speed limits just don't make sense.

"For example, there can be a limit of 50 or 40mph on an A-road, and then you'll see a minor road which isn't much more than a tarmacked track, with a speed limit of 60mph – just 10mph less than the motorway.

"To date, one of the issues with implementing lower speed limits has been the need for repeater signs every 500 yards.

"These are expensive to install and have the effect of cluttering up the countryside.

"By giving councils the option of creating 40mph zones where appropriate – which would be similar to the 20mph zones in some urban areas – the need for constant signage is reduced.

Community enforcement

One question that has been raised about lowering speed limits in rural areas is how this might be monitored and enforced.

Smyth believes that promoting Community Speed Watch schemes, would help.

"This would involve local people in monitoring speeding, rather than seeing enforcement by increasingly over-stretched police as the only option," he says.

Another possible strategy for decreasing fatalities on rural roads is for drivers to have  training on how to handle them.

"Changes in speed limits may prove to be effective in some areas, but they need to be based on local conditions and actually be enforceable," says Simon Best, Chief Executive of road safety charity the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM).

"Signs only tell you the speed limit, not the best speed for the conditions.

Driving lessons on country roads

"We believe that the government should make driving on rural roads part of the driving test and give young drivers training so they can get their speed right."

Currently, the plan is that local councils can now apply to the government for speed limit changes in their area.

"Any changes to a speed limit will be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis," says road safety minister Mike Penning.

"It is vital that speeds are suitable for local conditions and councils are best placed to determine what these limits are, based on local knowledge and the views of the community."

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Maria McCarthy

Maria McCarthy

Maria McCarthy is a motoring and lifestyle journalist and author of The Girls' Car Handbook and The Girls' Guide to Losing your L Plates published by Simon and Schuster. She's also a regular on BBC Breakfast news, and local and national radio, commenting on motoring matters. Her pet motoring hates are potholes and high fuel prices.

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