Tree scheme slows down fast drivers

Strategic planting on some of Norfolk's rural roads has been shown to have an effect on perception of speed

Trees could become a green weapon against speeding motorists following the success of an innovative planting scheme that challenges drivers' perceptions.

Provisional results from a road-safety initiative in four Norfolk villages show strategic positioning of trees led drivers to reduce their speed by an average of two miles per hour.

Norfolk County Council will submit its final results to the Department for Transport in the autumn. If successful, the £70,000 initiative could be copied by local authorities across the country.

"It's a good result for what is a very cheap method," said Stuart Hallett, Norfolk's casualty reduction manager.

News of the initial success comes as cash-strapped councils struggle to meet the costs of operating speed cameras after the Government axed central funding. Oxfordshire County Council switched off its cameras earlier this month and other local authorities are expected to follow suit. Drivers have since taken advantage, breaking speed limits.

Norfolk County Council planted 200 trees in four villages – Martham, Horstead, Mundesley and Overstrand – in an effort to reduce average speeds by two to three miles per hour and cut accidents by 20 per cent. There had been 20 crashes in the rural spots over a five-year period.

Mr Hallett said the initiative, which supports carbon reduction and is the first of its kind in the UK, was about changing the environment to alter motorists' perspectives. The planting of trees and hedges is designed to reduce speed "by playing with the driver's peripheral vision". One technique involved placing trees – at decreasing distances apart – on the approach to a village, tricking drivers into thinking they were speeding. "If you are staying at a constant speed, your peripheral vision [which takes in the trees] is giving you the impression you are going faster," explained Mr Hallett. "People hit the brakes before they hit the village."

Another method was to plant trees "so that it looks like the environment is closing in on the driver", he added. The road remains the same width but trees are planted on a "lazy diagonal" that gets narrower towards the entrance to the village.

Council officers also consulted old pictures and found many Norfolk villages used to have French-style avenues of trees running through them. This "avenue effect" was restored.

"What we tried to do in some locations was get over this idea of the village dominating the road environment, not the road dominating the village, so the driver's perspective is 'I am travelling through a community, I need to respect that and slow down'," said Mr Hallett.

He insists that planting schemes are not a viable alternative to speed cameras. While strategic tree-planting suited small low-speed rural roads, he said safety cameras were appropriate for major roads.

Ellen Booth, campaigns officer for the road-safety charity Brake, said it was interesting when councils tried new ways to get drivers to slow down but that it was necessary to wait for an independent evaluation of how effective these measures were.

The trees used were mature native species or those resistant to the salty environment of coastal locations, such as oak, field maple, Swedish whitebeam, hornbeam, flowering pear, rowan and birch. The £70,000 cost included a 15-year maintenance programme and was part of a wider £1.5m two-year government-funded initiative in Norfolk, designed to investigate new road-safety approaches.

The Department for Transport said it wanted to examine the full report before commenting.

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