The UK has been confirmed as having more traffic jams than anywhere else in Europe. The Independent Transport Commission has found that the cost of these jams to the UK economy is a staggering £9 billion per year. That’s more than the cost to most European countries combined.

Additionally, research by traffic analytics company Inrix shows that, in 2016, drivers encountered 1.35 million traffic jams in the UK. That works out on average to 3,700 traffic jams every day. The estimated annual cost of £9 billion wasted is based on time, fuel spent while idling or starting vehicles in jams and the resultant cost of all that unnecessary pollution.

M5 wins title of “worst traffic jam” in 2016

On 4 August 2016 at the M5 near Somerset, two lorries collided. This created the worst traffic jam of last year, with a 36-mile tailback. It took workers 15 hours to clear the debris. This jam alone was estimated to have cost £2.4 million.

The northbound M6 has three serious traffic jams in the top five worst traffic jams of 2016, while a serious car accident on the A406 was the fourth worst jam of the year.

The causes of the worst queues ranged from fuel spills and emergency repairs to broken down lorries. November was the worst month in terms of the total number of traffic jams. There were 169,000 on the UK’s major roads during that month. April had the second highest number of jams recorded.

Traffic Jams on UK roads

(Credit – N Chadwick)

UK roads not fit for purpose

Investment has been made to update Britain’s main trunk roads. We are totally reliant on these to get up and down the country. Unfortunately, the sheer volume of traffic on them means that if anything causes the traffic flow to stop at all, there are no alternative road systems nearby for drivers to move across to. Many of the new “smart motorways” being built across the UK are exacerbating the problem because they are built with no hard shoulder in place, just emergency refuge bays provided at maximum intervals of 2,500 metres.

Government seeks solutions

The government is asking highways agencies to work faster to reduce delays caused by accidents on motorways and A-roads. In a letter in The Times from Transport Minister Jesse Norman to Highways England, the government urges agencies to consider using sliproads as contraflows to clear traffic more quickly, among other solutions.

In the letter, following an incident on the M3, the Transport Minister said that he wanted to “ensure that disruption to motorists and communities is minimized during and after events such as this.”

He added:

“A particular feature shown in the media was the availability of empty slip roads, and I would be interested to know whether you considered if these could be used as contraflow to move traffic off the motorway.”

Highways England reported that it cleared 85% of motorway and A-road incidents within the hour. However, this does beg the question that, if Highways England is as efficient as it claims to be, what is the underlying cause of the UK having more jams than anywhere else in Europe?

Looking at vehicles per capita, the UK is 34th in the world. It comes behind France, Sweden, Italy, Luxembourg and Greece, so that doesn’t seem to be the problem. The UK has six million fewer cars than France on its roads.

Looking at the road infrastructure itself, the motorway system has hardly changed in almost 50 years. Pushing more cars down the same arterial roads is surely the main cause of the problem. Perhaps it would be wise for the government to consider spending the same as they expect to do on HS2 by building a completely new alternative motorway system. This would allow Motorway System 2.0 to cope with bottlenecks on 1.0 – and vice versa.

Are Britain’s roads no longer fit for purpose in the 21st century? Should the government expand the road system to tackle congestion or look at ways to get people off the roads? Does something drastic need to happen before we change? Let us know in the comments below.

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