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A Special Road is a road within the United Kingdom which is defined as such by a Statutory Instrument. Special Roads are unusual because they do not constitute a right-of-way, and as such are open to no traffic unless allowed to do so by the Statutory Instrument. The opposite of a Special Road is an All-purpose Road.
Special Roads and Motorways
The majority of Special Roads are motorways, which are legally defined as Special Roads that allow Class I (cars, motorcycles and light vans with pneumatic tyres) and Class II traffic (goods vehicles and military vehicles) only to use them.
As such, motorways are a subset of Special Roads - or, to put it another way, all motorways are Special Roads, but not all Special Roads are motorways.
Non-motorway Special Roads
A Special Road that is open to classes of traffic other than Class I and Class II (or indeed to only Class I or Class II) is not a motorway. There are a small number of roads in the UK that have been built using Special Road powers, and opened to some classes of non-motorway traffic, which are therefore non-motorway Special Roads.
Where these non-motorway Special Roads exist, they appear to road users as if they are all-purpose roads, but usually have NO Signs at their entrances in order to specify the restrictions that apply to them. In most cases the restrictions are very similar to those imposed on motorways.
However, not all roads with NO signs are non-motorway Special Roads. There are other roads in the UK that are ordinary All-purpose roads and which have motorway-style restrictions applied by traffic orders or by other means. The existence of a NO sign is not necessarily proof of the existence of a non-motorway Special Road.
One of the unusual characteristics of all non-motorway Special Roads is that they must have their Speed Limits defined within their Statutory Instruments and signposted explicitly, as the National Speed Limit only applies to all-purpose roads and motorways. One common feature of many non-motorway Special Roads is the presence of speed limit signs indicating "70" where a National Speed Limit sign would normally be expected.
Note that while the National Speed Limit does not apply to non-motorway Special Roads, specific limits for classes of vehicle (such as the 60mph limit for heavy goods vehicles) is specified in separate legislation and does still apply - so the existence of a 70mph speed limit sign on a non-motorway Special Road does not exempt vehicles from lower limits that normally apply to them.
Examples of non-motorway Special Roads include sections of:
- A55 near Colwyn Bay, including the Conwy Tunnel
- footpath alongside M48 Severn and Wye Bridges
- A720 Edinburgh City Bypass
- A1 east of Edinburgh
- A57 Mancunian Way sliproads from A5103 Princess Road
- A12 Westlink, Belfast
- A87 Skye Bridge
- Austhorpe Interchange connecting roads
The following non-motorway Special Roads used to exist:
The following non-motorway Special Roads exist in law, but are as yet only planned to be built, or being built
- A90 Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route and associated link roads
- A90 south of the Forth Replacement Crossing
- A725 underneath M74 J6
Special Roads were first created by the Special Roads Act (1949), which was intended to provide the Ministry of Transport with legal powers to construct roads that could only be used by motor traffic. Early drafts of this legislation were actually called the Motorway Bill, but this was changed to the Special Roads Bill as it was drafted and redrafted. The powers were not used for another six years, until a Statutory Instrument was published for the Bamber Bridge to Broughton Special Road Scheme 1955. This enabled construction of the Preston Bypass, the UK's first motorway, which is now largely part of the M6.
The Special Roads Act was superceded by the Road Traffic Regulation Act (1984), and today Special Road schemes are made under the powers of this act.
The legal concept behind Special Roads is slightly unusual. Most roads in the UK are All-purpose roads, which means they are open to all traffic. An all-purpose road can be restricted - for example, by banning vehicles over a certain weight from using it - by imposing a traffic regulation order and erecting suitable signage. Unless a type of road user is specifically prohibited from using an all-purpose road, they are permitted to use it.
Special Roads operate in the opposite way: their default state is that no road user is permitted to use them, and classes of vehicle must be specifically permitted by the Statutory Instrument in order to allow it to be used. There is, therefore, an absolute and unequivocal ban on all types of traffic that are not specifically permitted to use the road.
- Special Roads Act 1949
- Highways Act 1980, Special Roads section
- Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984
- The Special Road Schemes and Highways Orders (Procedure) Regulations 1993
- The Special Roads (Notice of Opening) Regulations 1992