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The Dangers of Country Lanes

The Dangers of Country Lanes


Country lanes may look very pretty, but as Motoring journalist, John Swift, discovered, if you're a motorist then behind their beauty lies danger.

If you’re driving to and from work today on a country road you might want to take it a little more slowly, give yourself a fraction longer for a proper look – both ways - before pulling out of a junction and be prepared to stop suddenly as you go around a bend, only to find a localised hazard. Why? Because you’re on the type of road that, statistically speaking, is more likely to see you involved in a fatal crash than any other.

Pretty country lane with post and rail fencing and blue sky

High average speeds, hedges obstructing lines of sight, unexpected junctions, livestock and wildlife, natural roadside obstacles and running wide on a bend are just some of the dangers which make our inter-town and rural roads so much more dangerous than our fastest, but safest ones, the motorways.

The latest figures should give you pause for thought. In 2017, almost two-thirds of casualties (63%) were injured on built-up, urban roads, but most fatalities (60%) were on rural roads. On average three people die each day on country roads and the number of people killed on them was more than 10 times higher than on motorways. Motorways may seem constantly busy and they do carry more than a fifth of all road traffic, they account for just 6% of fatalities.

Quite apart from the human cost in suffering, the physical pain and grief, the economic cost is shocking. In 2016 the cost of road traffic crashes was put at £35 billion, the equivalent of almost 2% of Gross Domestic Product. Yet numerous studies have shown that carefully targeted road improvement schemes give a better return on investment than just about any other transport programme. Last year (2018) Lord Whitty of Camberwell, chairman, Road Safety Foundation, said in Parliament that a relatively small sum of £75 million a year spent on road maintenance and improvement on our most dangerous roads would more than pay for itself.

White pick up truck passing a horse and rider on a country lane junctionsPhoto © Robin Stott

He was speaking at the publication of a government report based on the EuroRAP (European Road Assessment Programme) scheme which does for roads what the EuroNCAP does for vehicle’s crash safety engineering, and which revealed that there are 10% of our roads on which you are at 50 times more risk than if you were driving on our safest ones.

How dangerous are country roads?

  • 60% of road crash fatalities happen on country roads
  • On average three people a day die on country roads and the number killed on country roads was more than 10 times higher than on motorways in 2017
  • In 2017 10,729 people were killed or seriously injured (KSI) in country road accidents
  • British EuroRAP 2018 shows that the riskiest road is the A524 between Margate and Ramsgate in Kent

What are the main reasons behind country road crashes?

  • Failure to look properly is the most frequently reported contributory factor, in 41% of all crashes in 2017
  • In fatal collisions a loss of control is the most frequently recorded factor and is involved in 27% of them

What are some of the main hazards?

  • Hidden gateways to fields, farms, side roads and junctions
  • Changing grip levels if a tractor leaving mud (or worse) has been on the road
  • High hedges blocking your view through a corner and perhaps obscuring a junction or other road hazard
  • Hedges causing shade where frost and ice may linger
  • Horses being ridden / cyclists
  • A bird or animal running out from a hedge

Coumtry lane with high hedges bending over the lanecopyright Anthony Warren

What can you do about them?

Only drive at a speed at which you’re confident you can stop in, given how far you can see. This is true on any road, in any weather, but especially so on rural roads. You should be prepared for the unexpected and be mindful that just around the next corner there could be a vehicle pulling out from a junction you didn’t even know was there. Drive only at a speed which lets you slow down in the distance you can see; follow that golden rule and you will be a lot safer.

Rural roads can present you with changing surfaces, often caused by tractors putting mud on the road as they drive off a field or farmyard. There are some obvious warning signs you should be taking in, for example if it’s ploughing season, common sense should prevail. Mud puts a layer between your tyre and the road, making it very slippery and can take a while to work clear of the tread, so even after you’ve driven through it, just be careful and don’t expect full grip straight away.

Tractor on a country lane

© Copyright Lewis Clarke 

Hedges can pose several problems. In cold weather ice can form in their shadow before more exposed parts of the road and linger for longer once it warms up. In strong sunlight there can be a risk as you go from light into shade so you should be looking ahead for any possible problem in the darker area before you get there, to cover that fraction of a second while your eyes adjust.

In low sun you can also get that strobe effect from trees which can be very off-putting. Pulling the sun visor to the side will take care of some of that.

If you come across horse-riders, just remember that they can go sideways as well as forwards so give them plenty of room and respect. Drive up behind them slowly and don’t accelerate hard as you overtake. A frightened horse can be extremely dangerous for you, the rider and any other drivers nearby.

The same must be said for cyclists, either individuals or groups. Remember that there’s a legal requirement to give riders a safe amount of room and many cyclists now wear helmet cams to catch drivers who don’t.

If an animal or bird suddenly runs or flies out of a hedge, there’s not a lot you could have done to have anticipated it, but the worst thing you can do, if there’s oncoming traffic or some following you, is to swerve or jump on the brakes. It’s the natural reaction, but has obvious dangers. So, as you drive into a rural area, play out that scenario in your head to train your brain so that if it does happen you’ll be better prepared to do the right thing, which is to keep driving straight and if there is really no other option, to hit it. Not nice, but a lot better than having a collision with another vehicle.

Pheasant on the side of a country lane

© Copyright Kenneth Allen

Now for the good news. Despite all those risks and hazards, driving in the UK is comparatively very safe and a European survey ranked the UK as the third equal safest, with Switzerland, and behind only Norway and Sweden. Only us and these three other countries have a road mortality level less than 30 deaths per million inhabitants.

Think about some of those localised hazards, get your brain into gear and try to avoid being one of those statistics.