The Special Roads Act
So why was the Act needed?
Basically because it was almost impossible to build motorways without it. It was possible beforehand to use other legislation to prevent things being built along a road, but it was generally awkward, and utilities providers could still dig roads up to lay pipes and cables. The Special Roads Act (and its Northern Ireland equivalent, the Special Roads Act (Northern Ireland) 1963) changed all that, and suddenly the motorway age was possible.
The Act itself is quite interesting, and one of the most interesting parts of it is the listing of "Classes of Vehicles":
- Cars, motorcycles and light vans with pneumatic tyres
- Goods vehicles and military vehicles
- Motor Vehicles controlled by pedestrians
- Other Motor Vehicles
- Vehicles drawn by animals
- Vehicles drawn or propelled by pedestrians
- Animals ridden or led
Since then, two more classes of traffic have been added: 10, which is motorcycles of under 50cc and 11 for invalid carriages.
Motorways by their very nature permit only Class I and Class II vehicles - indeed it is that very property that defines a motorway. However, the really interesting part is this: you can within the legislation have a Special Road that allows other classes of vehicles, either in addition to the standard Class I and II, or instead of them. Technically, you could have a Special Road that allowed only horse-drawn vehicles, that banned bicycles or cars. Perhaps one that allowed pedestrians and ridden animals, but banned motor vehicles and bicycles. The possibilities are limitless. Well, they're not, but you know what I mean.
Indeed - all of this is right there in the original Act. Indeed, one of the very first Special Roads, one of the few listed in a "Schedule" (appendix) to the Act wasn't really a motorway at all, as it allowed all classes of vehicles except for Class VIII, or animals, presumably aimed at horse riders, though you can't say, drive sheep across it as well. Apart from in a lorry, anyway. I think I'm losing the plot now...
Which road was that then?
That was the Severn and Wye Bridges, now part of M48, which has those restrictions today.
So the Severn Bridge isn't a motorway then? What about all those blue signs and lines on the map?
Hold your horses.
Glad you liked it.
The M48 is indeed a motorway, and it has all the right restrictions. All of the other classes of traffic can use a separate footway alongside the vehicular carriageway on the southern side of the bridge - and there's just a tiny barrier separating the two. So yeah, the Severn Bridge today is indeed a Special Road in its entirety, just not all of the road is a motorway.
Yes, indeed so. This little bit of strangeness went pretty much unnoticed until the 1990s, despite this very early appearance. Indeed, it was so unnoticed that it was entirely forgotten about when the legislation was brought in regarding speed limits...
What do you mean?
Well, when the National Speed Limit (NSL) was introduced, it was to the well-known limits outside urban areas. 60mph for single carriageway all-purpose roads, 70mph for dual carriageway all-purpose roads and motorways. However, there is no defined limit for Special Roads that aren't motorways, probably because there weren't any, bar the path along the Severn and Wye Bridges. With the absence of a defined speed limit, they really are derestricted roads...
Really? So I can go as quickly as I like along them?
Well, no. All of the non-motorway Special Roads so far discovered actually do have defined speed limits, though they have to be signed as that limit - so you will travel along a road and suddenly see "70" signs as you enter the Special Road section, then an NSL sign as you pass out at the other end. Theoretically, however, class limits do not apply (as they're undefined too), so HGVs can legally do 70mph. Of course, I wouldn't want to be brave enough to test it in court, and we won't be held up as evidence. You're on your own, sunshine...