The number of reports of vehicles being driven the wrong way on England’s motorways rose by 13% in a year, an investigation has found.
Motoring groups described the increase as “frightening” and called for technological interventions to be considered among fears drivers are over-relying on sat navs.
National Highways figures show 872 incidents involving “oncoming vehicles” were reported on England’s motorways in the year to June 19.
That is up from 770 during the previous 12 months, and represents an average of more than 16 every week.
The data, released in response to a Freedom of Information request, relates to unconfirmed reports of wrong-way driving received by National Highways’ regional operations centres.
One of the most serious incidents in recent years left three men dead when a stolen van was driven in the wrong direction by a 15-year-old boy and crashed into a taxi on the M606 near Bradford, West Yorkshire in June 2022.
Sheena Hague, National Highways director of road safety, said: “Safety is our top priority and our traffic officers are called out to hundreds of thousands of incidents each year, including collisions, breakdowns and debris.
“Thankfully the number of reports of oncoming vehicles is low, however we treat them seriously by setting signals to warn and inform drivers for every report of a vehicle driving the wrong way on our motorways.
“We design our motorways to be as intuitive as possible to reduce the likelihood of anyone driving the wrong way.”
Drivers who see a vehicle travelling in the wrong direction are urged to contact 999 if it is safe to do so or use a motorway SOS phone to alert the authorities.
Speed limits are usually cut to 20mph on motorway stretches where a vehicle being driven towards other traffic is reported.
Edmund King, president of the AA, said: “The increase in the number of vehicles being driven in the wrong direction on motorways is frightening and can be fatal.
“Various incidents seem to be clearly down to drunk drivers for which there is absolutely no excuse. These drunk drivers should not be on the roads.
“Generally the slip road layout and signage is designed to ensure joining the motorway in the right direction is intuitive.
“However, sometimes drivers follow sat nav directions without thinking, for example, to ‘take the third exit’, without actually checking the signage, and therefore they can make mistakes.”
Mr King urged motorists to “use common sense” and not “over-rely” on the sat nav.
Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, said: “To most drivers it’s the stuff of nightmares to think that anyone could drive the wrong way down a motorway.
“Yet despite highway engineers’ best efforts to make it hard to mistake the off-ramp for a slip road, these numbers show there’s a lot more work to be done.
“Could more be done with technology – perhaps slip-road sensors that trigger roadside warnings?
“The ability of information to be fed to and from our increasingly connected and intelligent cars must create the opportunity for alerts to be generated and displayed within the vehicle.”
Jo Shiner, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for roads policing, said: “It’s concerning to see the number of incidents rising and I echo National Highways’ comments in that safety is our top priority.
“It’s so important to be aware and alert when driving.
“Please keep any distractions to a minimum and concentrate on the signs and information provided for your safety.”