Bad design blamed for M3 toll

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The Independent Online
The Winchester bypass at Twyford Down - one of the most controversial roads in Britain - has one of the worst accident records in the country.

Exactly 1,000 days - less than three years - after the pounds 25.8m road was opened, cutting through outstanding countryside, police records reveal that its traffic accident level is 25 per cent above the national average, and flaws in its design are being blamed.

Casualties have doubled since it was first opened in 1994, and in the one-and-a-half-mile stretch of the M3 extension between junctions 10 and 11, passing through the Twyford Down cutting, there have been 25 crashes, including 11 so far this year. Collisions average two a month, tending to be more frequent in winter than summer.

The revelation of the high accident rate, coming at the start of the Winchester by-election campaign, is likely to revive voters' concerns about the road. For 20 years the people of Hampshire fought plans for the road through public inquiries and the courts.

Engineers say its design is to blame. Traffic in both directions, often heavy freight destined for London or for ports on the south coast, has to climb a steep incline into the cutting, and two junctions at this point are close together, causing drivers to slow. Police records show that although accidents on the M3 are decreasing, in this section they have gone up. Even taking account of improved police recording methods, the rate at Twyford Down is unexpected.

The nature of the accidentspoints to the contributory factors. Of the 25 crashes, eight have been multi-vehicle shunts. In five, drivers collided when slowing down. In one, a driver descending the steep slope towards a turn-off left his exit on to the sliproad too late, crossed the verge and hit a pillar.

"Many of the features of the road are below the Department of Transport's own standards," says Richard Parker, one of theengineers who advised campaigners arguing for the tunnel option at the 1988 Public Inquiry.

"The gradient is the steepest allowed under highway design standards, and the junctions are too close, they should be at least two kilometres apart. The design scheme we proposed for the tunnel had neither of these flaws." This option was narrowly rejected on account of the extra cost, estimated in 1987 at pounds 92m.

News that Mott MacDonald (the engineer for the scheme) has rejected a Tarmac claim for the costs of dealing with the protesters will fuel speculation that the actual cost of the road - not yet released - is over- budget.

If Tarmac does not accept the burden of such costs the case will go to arbitration, potentially increasing the bill to the taxpayer.

Mark Oaten, Liberal Democrat candidate in the Winchester by-election, said yesterday that he would raise the accident rate with the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who also heads the Environment and Transport Department.

"We can't rewrite history, but I hope the lessons of Twyford Down have been learnt, and we will never again see such a crude scheme,'' he said.