Safest route: Motorways vs country roads

Safest route: Motorways vs country roads

The days of UK motorists becoming back-seat drivers are fast approaching. In his most recent budget, the chancellor announced that driverless cars will be tested in the UK as early as 20171. Once they hit our roads, these state-of-the-art vehicles will use complex algorithms to detect hazards and analyse routes, allowing us to travel from A to B safely and with minimal effort. However, while we await the arrival of autonomous cars, tasks such as choosing the safest route to a destination remain firmly in motorists’ hands.

Should I take the motorway? Or should I drive the more scenic country route? Decisions like this may seem insignificant, but could in fact turn out to be important when thinking about both our own safety, and that of our passengers.

In a bid to find out which road type is the safest, we investigated the risks and benefits associated with driving on motorways and country roads.

Number of collisions by road type

When it comes to road safety, UK roads are amongst the safest in the world. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 2, the number of crashes per head in the UK are the 5th lowest in the world. Yet unfortunately, the number of casualties we see on our roads each year remain uncomfortably high. According to Department for Transport statistics3, just over 175,000 casualties were reported in 2014.

Predictably, certain roads carry a greater risk of casualties or fatalities occurring. We recently carried out a survey4 that revealed the types of roads on which UK motorists think the most amount of collisions occur.

road type collisions

The results of our survey clearly indicate that UK motorists believe rural roads witness more than twice the number of collisions motorways do. Statistics published by the Department for Transport reflect this belief and indicate that rural roads are in fact the scene of more crashes than motorways.

However, the data also suggests that we underestimate the disparity between the two figures; making evident that the risks on country roads are in fact greater than we predict.

casualties by road type

Even though the volume of traffic is considerably lower on rural roads, in 2013 there were almost seven times more casualties on these types of road compared to motorways. Disturbingly, the number of which were fatal was almost ten times higher.

The dangers: Motorways vs rural roads


  • Undertaking and overtaking
  • Tailgating
  • Vehicles sitting in the middle lane
  • Monotonous driving
  • Driving too quickly (or too slowly)
  • Joining and leaving the motorway
  • Changing lanes at high speed

Rural roads

  • Sharp bends, hidden dips and blind corners
  • Pedestrians and cyclists
  • Overgrown trees, verges and bushes which can impede motorists’ view
  • Slow moving farm vehicles and animals
  • Wild animals crossing
  • High speeds on unpredictable roads
  • Encountering other vehicles on narrow roads

Why are there more casualties on rural roads?

While there are dangers associated with both driving on rural roads and motorways, statistics clearly point to the former as the more dangerous of the two. We spoke to Nick Lloyd, Road Safety Manager at ROSPA UK, and Richard Coteau, of road safety charity Brake, to find out why. Lloyd told us that:

The reason why rural roads have a higher severity rate is explained by the nature of the roads: they have bends, hidden dips, junctions and can be narrow; all of which make them less forgiving than a well-engineered modern motorway or dual carriageway.

Due to rural roads having less traffic, some drivers are a lulled into a false sense of security and consequently take risks such as speeding and overtaking. However, Coteau from told us that, while country roads may appear empty, “they are shared spaces used by pedestrians, cyclists, horse riders, slow farm vehicles, livestock and wild animals – all of which have a right to be there. They are often narrow with blind corners and bends, pot holes and debris, and no pavements or cycle paths.” These hazards, on the other hand, are a rarer sight on motorways.

Anticipating hazards such as the ones above on narrow, winding country roads, many of which lined with dense bushes and trees, can be extremely difficult at the best of times. When speeding or overtaking, this can be near impossible. Granted the speed limit on rural roads is 60mph, far more often than not, travelling at this speed wouldn’t leave motorists enough time to react to an unexpected hazard. Attempting to stop a vehicle travelling at the national speed limit takes 240 feet, equivalent to the length of 18 cars. 5 On roads which are often worn down, with scattered potholes and debris, this distance can be even further.

Our survey revealed that that almost half, 46%, of motorists believe errors made by drivers to be the leading cause of road collisions in the UK. This is closely followed by poor behaviour and inexperience, named by just over a quarter. Considering that, according to Lloyd, “loss of control was more commonly recorded for fatal crashes on rural roads and motorways,” UK motorists seem to be spot on in their belief of what the main causes of collisions are. In fact, Coteau told us that “through our surveys we have found that many drivers admit to going over the speed limit, and taking the risk of tailgating too.”

In regards to which age group is most at risk, Lloyd mentions that “young rural drivers are nearly twice as likely (44%) to be involved in a collision compared with young urban drivers”, mainly due to the fact that they “lack the experience, resulting in them misjudging the severity of bends.” This further confirms motorists’ beliefs and emphasises that inexperience can be extremely dangerous, particularly on country roads.

Staying safe on the road

The following tips can help to minimise the chances of losing control and crashing on rural roads:

  • Don’t drive whilst tired
  • Concentrate and avoid driver distraction
  • Avoid overtaking
  • Drive at an appropriate speed for the conditions – bad weather alters stopping distances and vehicle grip on the road
  • Be aware of hazards such as pedestrians and cyclists
  • Watch your speed around bends
  • Keep to the speed limit – the faster you go the less time a driver has to identify the hazard ahead and to react to it accordingly

Although rural roads can often be beautiful and scenic, it’s clear that they’re more dangerous than motorways for all types of road users. This is not to say that motorways are without risk, but their design, safety features and the fact that fewer unexpected hazards exist on this this type of road makes them far safer in terms of number of casualties.

So next time you choose or need to drive on a country road, bear in mind that although the road ahead may appear empty, an unexpected hazard may be around the next corner.

What is risk compensation?

Despite the obvious benefits of vehicle safety features, they can also have an adverse effect on driver behaviour and road safety. Read on to find out why.

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Additional Sources

[4]An exclusive survey of 1,094 British drivers conducted online by YouGov for Aviva in conjunction with the Telegraph - 7-9 December 2015

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