The Importance of Safety Barriers

Maltaward Concrete Barriers

It is widely debated as to whether or not more deaths occur as a result of crashes on motorways or other roads. While fewer crashes occur on motorways per mile travelled, the potential for fatalities is higher in motorway crashes compared to those that occur on other roads.

In the UK, 1.4% of all crashes are fatal, yet this percentage rises to 2% when looking at crashes on motorways. The reason for this could be that motorway crashes often result in pile ups where more people are in danger of being injured.

Safety barriers have a number of very important roles. One is to stop vehicles from accessing the opposite side of a dual carriageway and the other is to avoid vehicles gaining access or impacting on hazards on the roadside, such as construction work.

Vehicles can easily spin out of control in poor weather conditions and unintentionally reach the opposite side of a dual carriageway, so these barriers must be prepared to take the impact of any vehicles, from small cars to Lorries.

For this reason, barriers are designed in such a way so that they can absorb the energy caused by the impact of a vehicle to prevent it from turning back into the road.

Safety barriers are almost always used when there is an identified risk to road users, although their use must also be justified.

In terms of the benefits they provide and the cost required to have them installed, safety barriers are often only installed when the consequence of a vehicle hitting a barrier are likely to be less serious than if the vehicle was allowed to continue unrestrained after swerving off the road.

Safety Barrier Specifications

The UK has specific regulations for the crash barrier design and manufacturing process. Any barrier installed in advance of a hazard must have a minimum length of 30m. There are many barriers used on motorways and trunk road bridges that exceed this length. UK regulations also state that the vast majority of metal safety barriers are required to be 61cm in height.

Other regulations in Europe, such as Switzerland, state that the minimum barrier length is 50m. The length of a safety barrier can differ depending on the location, with barriers installed at the approach to a bridge ranging from 16m in Austria to almost 100m in New York.

Most countries use maximum barrier heights of around 61cm, although in Belgium the height measured from the ground to the barrier beam is on average around 1m.

Choosing the Right Safety Barrier

The process of choosing a barrier to serve a specific purpose is extremely important, as the wrong choice of barrier can actually increase the chances of a road accident on the motorway. The right barrier is chosen through a detailed examination of the particular stretch of road in question, with the speed, traffic and volume all taken into account.

Flexible steel safety barriers were oftenused for the vast majority of central reservations on major roads. This type of barrier was chosen in the past due to its minimal effect on impacting vehicles and their occupants.

However, the Highway Agency recently changed its stance and recommended the use of concrete barriers instead on motorway central reservations.

The Emergence of Concrete Barriers

A survey was carried out twelve years ago on behalf of the highway agency to identify the number of concrete barriers used across Europe. It was found that the vast majority of countries in Europe were using concrete barriers as a means of motorway crash safety during that year. The survey also discovered that the use of concrete barriers on motorways was much preferred in comparison to the former steel barriers used in central reservations.

There were a number of reasons as to why these countries had chosen concrete barriers over steel barriers, some of which included low maintenance requirements, less need for repair and less risk of crossover incidents. Crossover incidents account for more than 200 motorway crashes in the UK every year.

They also proved to work just as well with heavier vehicles and require less space compared to steel barriers which can gradually lose their shape as a result of impact. Moreover, just the one concrete barrier is required to serve a purpose to both sides of the road and the headlight dazzle often caused by steel barriers is not caused by concrete.

Are There Any Alternatives?

Concrete barriers are seen as the most effective safety barrier option for motorway central reservations and there doesn’t seem to be any practical alternative to the crash barriers we use today. Due to the fact that motorways and carriageways tend to be placed alongside each other, the amount of room available for alternatives is restricted.

Concrete barriers are hugely popular in the UK because of the lack of space we have available. In the US, carriageways have a 40ft ditch for separation purposes at times, yet we simply don’t have this space available to us in the UK.

The ditch technique used in the US has proven to be a very effective method of preventing collision between vehicles on opposite sides of a carriageway, as you would expect.


It seems that a 30m crash barrier is too small a minimum for many locations, especially on motorways where harsh bends are present. For this reason, crash barriers should almost always be made longer where necessary.

It’s also important to substitute steel barriers with concrete barriers as quickly as possible without waiting for steel barriers to reach the end of their practical use.

It’s essential that concrete barriers are introduced if they have been proven to reduce the number of crossover incidents.

Post contributed by Mike James at

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