The Safety Impact of Road Design Choices

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The decisions made by highways authorities have a huge impact on how roads are used – whether they are motor-dominant traffic sewers that are hostile to everyone bar some motorists, or attractive places that accommodate everyone and contribute towards safer travel. Historically, many authorities have been driven by the apparant need to move car traffic through an area as quickly and friction-free as possible. This has come at the expense of other road users and the safety of people living in or visiting an area but not using the car.

A sad incident in the local town of Bedworth recently led me to take a look at the road in question and what impacts its design has on road safety and useability. Whilst the specific incident (a hit and run) on Goodyers End Lane was a result of decisions made by a van driver who bears the responsibility for the consequences of those actions, there is an argument that generally speaking, highways authorities should accept a degree of responsibility where design decisions can contribute to incidents or the severity of the results of incidents.

While I’m looking at a specific road here, this is not a special case. Roads across the town, county, and country are often hostile to people. Even smaller residential roads have become dangerous places where they can be used as rat-runs by drivers especially as traffic levels increase and main routes become congested. Without significant change, this is a story that is only set to get worse.

This map above shows the road in question. It shouldn’t take long to notice a number of issues here which are clearly evident:

  • A long, reasonably wide road with only gentle curves – it’s fairly easy for drivers to pick up speed.
  • An unrestricted through road – it can carry traffic that has no business in the immediate area, adding to local congestion but without any benefit.
  • No permanent physical speed restrictions – speed is not inhibited or discouraged beyond the driver’s knowledge of, and willingness to abide to, the speed limit.
  • Parked vehicles on/partially on pavements – reduced pavement space for pedestrians and hindered visibility when crossing the road.
  • A 30mph speed limit – this is a residential area with a nearby school.
  • Wide side-road splays – encouraging higher speed turns by drivers, and presenting longer crossings for pedestrians.
  • Limited pedestrian crossing points – only one pedestrian crossing area to the east of the road.
  • Hostile for cycling – no cycle infrastructure whatsoever.

Given the above, it is clear what the priority currently is for Goodyers End Lane (motor vehicle movements, in case it wasn’t clear). Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. Whilst it may be a main through road, it is a residential area with a nearby school and as such, it would not be unreasonable to reprioritise the road in favour of people and implement design elements that are conducive to slower, safer driving. How could this be done? Firstly, implementing a blanket 20mph speed limit for the area, and then by adding features to the road to reinforce slower driving and enable alternatives to the car for local transport.

  • Narrow the main carriageway to 3m per direction – wider roads encourage higher speed driving, and the inverse is also true. Where space is narrower, drivers tend to slow down and take more care.
  • Add cycle lanes to each side of the road – provide safe cycle infrastructure to enable people to make the choice to cycle rather than drive, reducing congestion. Given that space is available for them, provide separation between pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers in order that people feel safe letting children cycle or walk to school.
  • Provide gentle full-width speed bumps on the main carriageway – full width speed bumps cannot be avoided by drivers who will need to slow in order to travel over them comfortably and (in some cases) to avoid risking damage to their vehicles.
  • Provide frequent pedestrian crossing points – currently there is one zebra crossing to the east of Goodyers End Lane. Provide more particularly near to bus stops to enable people to cross in greater safety.
  • Implement pinch points for drivers as a traffic calming measure – narrowing the road at intervals where only one direction of traffic can pass at a time forces slower driving. This could be integrated with pedestrian crossings meaning people have less distance to cross the road.
  • Reduce side road splays – wide splays on side roads enables high speed turns and increased the distance pedestrians need to travel to cross a side road. Reducing the splays makes crossings easier for pedestrians and forces slower driving.
  • Continue pavements and cycle paths across side roads – this presents a raised platform for drivers who need to cross clearly defined pedestrian and cyclist space, again forcing slower movements into and out from side roads and improving the pedestrian experience.

For the most part, this road (and many others) is perfectly wide enough to accommodate pedestrian footways, separated cycleways, small buffers, and bidirectional motor traffic – 13.6m of width is needed for minimum standards (2x 1.8m footways; 2x 1.5m cycleways; 2x 0.5m buffers; 2x 3m general traffic lanes). In fact, for much of the road there’d be space left over! Straightaway, safer cycling is enabled, pedestrians are kept further from motor traffic, and narrower general traffic lanes promote slower driving. Couple this with any additional traffic calming measures that may be deemed suitable to reinforce a new 20mph speed limit and the road becomes a much safer place, where even if a collision does occur for whatever reason, the lower speeds mean the results are likely to be less serious.

Goodyers End Lane – Current Layout (Streetmix – CC BY-SA 4.0)
Goodyers End Lane - Proposed Alternative Layout
Goodyers End Lane – Proposed Alternative Layout (Streetmix – CC BY-SA 4.0)

The above illustrations give an indication of how an improved road layout can fit, based on part of the road that is approximately 14m wide. The road varies in its width but it’s a good representation for the roughly 900 metres from the eastern junction (after which the space pinches in significantly). Where it narrows slightly, cycle lanes can pinch down to 1.5m to fit approx 13.6m. Buffers can also be squeazed slightly if needed over a short duration. Where the road widens out, additional space can be given to footpaths, cycleways, and verges ensuring that the driving lanes always maintain 3m throughout.

This provides a much safer road for those on Goodyers End Lane itself, but for the journey to school there is a more challenging issue of the northern end of Bowling Green Lane where the entrance to the school can be found. Again, we have another through route here, but with a narrower road space available and therefore fewer options. There is still the matter of wider than necessary general traffic lanes which means some space can be reallocated, but short of something drastic like pinching the road for one-way traffic, there does not appear space for protected, separated cycleways to the school gates – that’s a real pity. There would however be space for a narrow footpath on the eastern side of the road, and a 3.2m shared use path on the western side. It’s not ideal, of course, but with light separation with the main carriageway (ideally with bollards to prevent pavement parking), it creates the needed connection to enable cycling to and from the school gates in relative safety.

Broadening the topic back out to finish with then, it’s clear that there are many options available to highways authorities to control driver speed, enable better walking and cycling environments, and to discourage driving whilst not actively excluding it. Many roads in our towns and cities are not designed with this in mind; they are optimised for car travel. Pedestrians usually (but not always) get a pavement of varying widths and qualities which are then often blocked by parked vehicles; cyclists rarely get some infrastructure to help keep them safe in their journeys.

It will take a lot of time and money to fix the mistakes of the past, but these errors must be undone and councils should work proactively to do so (it should not be a reactive undertaking where changes only come about after incidents – although even that would be better than now where often very little changes are made after an incident). All new roads and junctions must be built to prioritise active travel from the start, but existing streets need to be updated on an ongoing programme of modernisation. Priority should be given to roads with obvious local destinations – residential areas connecting to schools, for example – but over time, most roads should accommodate high quality walking and cycling infrastructure creating a cohesive and joined up network enabling people to choose whatever method is most appropriate for them on their journey.

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