Worst roads in the UK: our most dangerous road trip

9 Mar, 2016 12:52pm Martin Saarinen

We take a road trip on the UK's riskiest road, then head to one of the most improved to see what safety measures can do

Whether it’s driving across Europe on electric power, making it around the UK on a single tank of fuel or simply racking up the miles on our test cars, Auto Express is never afraid to take on a road trip.

Normally, the cars are the stars of our journeys, with the roads consigned to a mere supporting role. Now, however, that’s all changed, as we tackled the UK’s riskiest road – the A285 near Chichester – which earned its title from a European Road Assessment Programme (EuroRAP) report.

EuroRAP says we should be paying just as much attention to the condition of our roads as our cars, with accidents as a result of poor surfaces costing the economy £15billion and, more importantly, 1,780 lives last year.

Our route is the A285 between Petworth and Chichester in West Sussex. Based on a ‘points’ system on the number of accidents where someone is killed or seriously injured, the 15-mile stretch of tarmac has been ranked as the UK’s most dangerous. To demonstrate how it could be improved, we then head east – via one of the country’s busiest roads, the M25 – to the A225 in Sevenoaks, Kent. The A225 used to be a high-risk route, but has seen a near-90 per cent fall in the number of serious accidents over the past five years as a result of intervention from the council. 

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Auto Express teamed up with RAC Foundation director Steve Gooding for our riskiest road trip yet to find out what made the A285 so bad and what the Government, councils and motorists can do to improve safety.

Britain's worst road - A285

From Petworth, the A285 is formed of long straights, tight turns, big changes in elevation and the occasional village placed in the middle. “Drivers can easily attempt to drive the road too fast and lose control,” Gooding told us. Indeed, according to EuroRAP, 40 per cent of crashes on the A285 come from motorists veering off the tarmac.

The road is incredibly unpredictable; it lacks a natural sense of flow, as corners suddenly turn much more sharply than anticipated or you find junctions in between them. Plus, the straights come with dips and falls that hinder visibility. There simply isn’t a consistent rhythm to the road, meaning you can easily find yourself braking mid-corner.  

“A bit more use of solid double lines and high friction surfaces around some of these corners wouldn’t hurt,” Gooding remarked during our assessment of the road.

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These measures wouldn’t just act as a second chance for drivers, as Gooding explained they would make the road more intuitive to use. Seeing the colour of the tarmac change will instinctively tell an experienced driver they need to slow down, while limiting speed in corners will not only prevent run-offs, but accidents with much slower road users. Shortly after, we spotted a jogger running on the road and disappearing into the corner. Over one in five accidents on the A285 involves a cyclist or pedestrian.

Surprisingly, there isn’t much more Gooding thinks the local authority can do to make the road safer, as West Sussex County Council has exhausted the textbook for improvements. “There has clearly been huge investment: much of the surface is new and smooth, there are clear signs and electronic billboards telling you to slow down. Effort has been put in,” he said. These reforms come as part of the county’s 20-year plan to improve road standards. 

But the efforts haven’t gone far enough according to Diane Anselm and David Leah from Halnaker – a town the A285 passes through – as the issue of speed hasn’t been tamed. “The pets of residents don’t have a chance on this road. I’ve lost four dogs to speeding drivers,” Diane told us.

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David has taken matters into his own hands, too. He joined several Halnaker locals in persuading the council to reduce the speed limit from 40mph to 30mph in the town. “The police were initially against this idea; they told us they couldn’t enforce it,” David said.

With police enforcement still “negligible”, David has set up his own digital speedometer to alert motorists if they’re driving above the limit. And he told us he’d like to see more enforcement like this: “Gateways when entering towns, pedestrian markings and greater police enforcement would surely bring speeds down.”

Gooding agreed: “Ultimately, you want the road communicating with the driver. More visual cues for motorists will highlight the dangers better, backed up by the threat of having greater police enforcement.”

M25

Having survived the UK’s most dangerous road, we head towards the most improved – and hit the M25. While drivers are eight times more likely to have an accident on a single carriageway road, many still label motorways as risky. A recent RAC study found up to eight million motorists avoid them on purpose, with most citing that the speeds are too fast. 

“It is understandable that some drivers are scared of motorways,” Gooding explained. “It takes a while before motorists get comfortable pulling into traffic doing 70mph – especially when training isn’t currently possible before passing the standard driving test.”

Speed is yet again the factor associated with risk – but in this instance it’s perceived risk. After all, the EuroRAP report categorises 95 per cent of UK motorways as low risk.  

Most-improved road - A225

With the motorway behind us, we arrive in Sevenoaks and hit the A225. “This is a different animal to the A285,” said Gooding. “Traffic is heavier, it’s more built up and there are more pedestrians about.”

We start from the town centre, where pedestrian markings are clear on the 30mph route, plus zebra crossings well placed and there are lots of high-friction surfaces. The road slowly moves to a 40mph zone and then to 60mph. There are twists and elevation changes, but the presence of these high-friction areas, signs and a pedestrian path on the side means you approach the corners with a lot more caution, even though the road is naturally more forgiving than the A285.

Kent County Council can take a lot of credit for the 90 per cent fall in the number of accidents the A225 has seen over the past five years, thanks to some clever engineering. We spoke to Tara O’Shea, senior engineering project manager at the council, who told us that the chief improvements have been the enhanced use of high-friction surfacing and the application of modern solutions to persistent problems. 

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She added: “We understand that motorists can make mistakes, especially in parts where the national speed limit applies, so we installed systems to reduce run-offs, but also created solutions so that if a motorist does veer off the road, they will incur minimal injuries.” 

Signs that crumple upon impact are part of this philosophy. These, again, have a dual effect, according to Gooding: “They not only communicate to the driver that there is a need to slow down, but if the motorist fails to listen and steers into them, the signs will absorb the impact and crumple rather than pierce the car and put the driver at severe risk.”

There’s obviously a massive contrast between the UK’s most dangerous and most improved roads. So what have we learned? Firstly, it’s that risk – especially on single carriageway routes – seems as much down to the road as it is to the road user. 

Investments in roadside infrastructure have a clear, proven benefit, but the difference between Kent and West Sussex highlights a persistent contradiction. Even with spending on road signs, lane markings and advanced warning systems, motorists still have accidents. 

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There is always more councils can and should do, but the much cheaper, simpler and inherently more logical solution comes from the drivers’ side: slow down. 

Reading the road

Road improvements are fine in isolation, but combined with an alert driver, they can save lives. Driving consultant Martyn Poole talks us through how to use what we see on the roads and stay safe.

• “Beware of things like surface conditions. The number of road signs and levels of traffic should all send signals to drivers.”

• “Look at the vanishing point to judge a bend’s severity. If the radius decreases as you turn, the bend will be tighter. Seeing corners this way will prevent sharp braking.”

• “On a left-hand turn, you should drive as far to the right as legally possible to maximise your view.” 

Consider also how close other cars are to you. It’s good practice to just brake once for hazards. Braking twice can easily cause a rear shunt with the car behind you.” 

Have you got any dangerous roads where you live? Start a discussion in the comments below!

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