Official findings from an analysis of the 2018 Department for Transport (DfT) congestion figures show Britain’s motorways are struggling to cope with the amount of traffic and are so congested that, in some areas, drivers are clocking an average speed of only 25 miles per hour (mph).
DfT calculated average speeds by taking speed observations from a sample of cars across 24-hour periods throughout the year. They came up with the averages based on a whole day—not even when speeds are at their worst, during rush-hour.
Experts found lots of slow areas within junctions between the slip road where motorists filter off and where vehicles enter and found 17 stretches of motorway where drivers averaged speeds below 30mph—less than the speed limit for residential areas.
Usain Bolt reached a top speed of 27.44mph when he ran the 100 metres in 9.58 seconds at the 2009 World Athletics Championship—albeit an Olympic sprinter, Bolt still travelled at a speed faster than the traffic on the five slowest stretches of motorway.
It won’t come as a surprise if you’re a regular user of it, but experts found the slowest motorway sections on the London Orbital—the M25 (often ridiculed as nothing more than ‘a big car park’), leading to the Dartford Tunnel. They recorded average speeds near the A206 junction at 25.1mph and 25.4mph near the A2 junction.
Average speed (mph) of the UK’s five slowest motorways in 2018:
1) M25 northbound Dartford Crossing near A206 junction: 25.1mph
2) M25 northbound Dartford Crossing near A2 junction: 25.4mph
3) M5 northbound near Oldbury Viaduct junction 2: 26.7mph
4) M4 westbound near Chiswick junction 1: 27.1mph
5) M5 southbound near West Bromwich junction 1: 27.2mph
Other sections in the list included the northbound stretch of the M1 near J24 at Leicestershire with an average speed of 37.1mph.
The average speed on the M6’s worst stretch (southbound between J10 and J9) was 41.7mph.
DfT experts recorded the slowest part of the M11, as southbound, heading towards the M25, between J5 and J4 in north-east London. There, speeds averaged 42.1mph.
Averaging speeds of 44.6mph, the M62’s slowest section was near Manchester on the westbound carriageway between J19 and J18.
In a jam
Rod Dennis, Senior Press Officer for the RAC, said of the sluggish speeds:
‘As these figures show, drivers will be lucky if they can drive anywhere approaching the national speed limit on some of England’s most congested stretches of motorway.
‘While some are notorious and seemingly permanent bottlenecks, others are likely to be caused by long-term roadworks which means drivers will have to hope that journey times will drop when they’re finally lifted.
‘Drivers tell us that they are becomingly [sic] increasingly dependent on using their cars, so it’s vital that investment in our motorway network is maintained.
‘Worryingly for drivers, we have seen evidence that some work to reduce traffic at pinch points on the motorway network has actually had the undesired effect of making congestion even worse, not better.
‘Clearly, tackling congestion on the UK’s major roads is never a quick or straightforward task, or for that matter, cheap.’
The DfT hasn’t commented because of the ‘purdah’ period leading up to the General Election but, in 2016, said ‘they were ‘making the most extensive improvements to roads since the 1970s, to make journeys faster, better and more reliable’ yet here we still are with major congestion problems on our motorways.
To compare findings, I looked back at 2017, at another in-depth study on the 10 worst British motorways for congestion and which stretches of road recorded the slowest average speed.
The telematics business Satrak (now part of Danish firm, Trackunit) collected data from over half a million (527,000) vehicles from across the whole 2,173 miles of Britain’s motorway network. They found the M25 London Orbital to have the slowest average speed of any motorway—once again, at just 25mph. Crawling along at that speed, you’d need to undergo an average of a five-hour drive to cover the 117-miles circling the capital.
Dan Walton, co-owner and founder of Satrak, said of the tortoise-like speeds of the M2:
‘It’s little surprise to find that the M25 is, in fact, the slowest motorway. We undertake work throughout the country and usually find the M25 to be the most cumbersome, and our data provides evidence for that. I’ve heard of tailbacks stretching 12 miles in my time there so it’s of little surprise to me.’
Stuck for an answer
When discussing traffic levels, frustrated motorists have a lot to say, the inevitable topic of overpopulation comes up, and a political discussion begins about the immigration policies of both the Conservative and Labour parties.
In 2018, people born outside the United Kingdom made up about 14% of the UK’s population but it’s important to remember that the world’s population is expanding as a whole and more people means the potential for more cars.
Families often owned one car in the past, while now they may own two or more—although 2012 RAC Foundation research (based on the 2011 Census) found an average of 487 cars and vans per 1,000 people.
Location-based data and analytics company, Inrix reported that, across Britain, we spent an average of 178 hours stuck in fury-inducing traffic last year. The figure rose to 22 hours—equal to over nine days—for drivers in England’s capital.
Early this year, Inrix also released study findings that claimed congestion cost our economy a massive £7.9 billion last year—an average of £1,317 per driver. Instead of us spending money or working, we’re wasting time in traffic jams, moving at a snail’s pace.
Maybe motorway speeds would ease somewhat if drivers stopped hogging the middle lane and moved over when possible?
One thing is certain—commuting on the motorway can be intolerable and many of us view it as much a factor in choosing a job as the salary.
How is your motorway commute? Do you inch along certain routes? What’s the answer to the levels of congestion? Tell us your views in the comments.