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Escape lane

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Escape lane
A9 Berriedale escape lane - Coppermine - 19847.jpg
An escape lane on the A9 in Caithness
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An escape lane is a road feature that seems to be disappearing from our roads. They were commonly located on steep hills in the past, offering a safe zone for vehicles, particularly lorries, to get off the road if their brakes proved to be insufficient for the hill. However, with the improvement in brakes, and the realignment of many roads to avoid the steepest hills, not least with the construction of motorways taking large volumes of traffic, Escape Lanes have become less relevant on the modern road network.


Escape lanes all generally follow the same basic constructional principles. They are located alongside the downhill side of a steep road, in locations that minimise the steering input needed by a runaway vehicle. As such, they are often found on the outside of gentle bends, but can also be found squeezed into the inside of a bend where the downhill lane only turns left. This is obviously, not such a safe location, as a runaway vehicle has the potential to overshoot the escape lane and return to the live carriageway. Wherever possible, the escape lane is constructed on the level, or at least with an easier gradient than the road, which again helps the vehicle slow down.

The first section generally maintains a reasonably hard surface, the same as or similar to the main carriageway, to allow the vehicle to completely clear the road before coming to a halt. This is then followed by a softer area such as deep gravel or sand, into which the vehicle can sink. This section needs to be sufficiently 'soft' to bring the vehicle to a halt, but at the same time not cause damage, or allow the vehicle to become embedded in, for example, waterlogged sand which would make recovery far more difficult than is really necessary. In many cases, a dense area of vegetation is found at the head of the escape lane. However, it is uncertain whether this is part of the design, or just nature reclaiming waste ground!

Sand traps

There is also a smaller version of an escape lane, where there is insufficient space for a full width trap. This is a narrow bed, normally filled with sand, on the verge which is wide enough to accept the nearside wheels of the vehicle, but leave the offside wheels on the carriageway. Obviously, such traps are not so effective, and have safety implications, not only of leaving the vehicle partially blocking the road, but also in slowing one side of the vehicle much quicker than the other, so potentially leading to swerving or skidding. Nevertheless, they are better than nothing.


Whilst not strictly speaking escape lanes, similar features can be found on the outside of many sharp, or hairpin bends. The nature of such bends on steep hills means that the outside of the corner is often relatively level, and needs to be made quite sizeable to allow larger vehicles to safely negotiate the corner. In the past, this large flattish area was often left to gravel on the outside, providing a small safe zone for runaway vehicles.

Escape lane signage
Escape lane on the A69 near Brampton


Escape lanes are still signed in advance, presumably to give reassurance to regular users of the road and time to prepare for those drivers who need them. The signage is white text on a blue background, and typically says 'Escape lane' or (as at Dunbeath on the A9 in the Highlands) 'Soft escape bed' with a simple diagram, and either a distance or 'Ahead' below. The initial sign is often mounted on the same pole as the Steep Hill Warning Sign.

The escape lane itself has an additional sign, stating that it is the escape lane, and many also say 'No Parking', to ensure that the lane is not blocked unnecessarily. A number of escape lanes also have 'ESCAPE LANE' painted on the road at the start as a final confirmation.

The diagram depicting the escape lane shows the main road carrying straight ahead as a solid white line, with a narrower left fork leading to a chequered rectangle to show the escape lane itself. Originally black and white, the chequer can now also be red and white. On the A9 at Berriedale the main road is also shown as curving around the end of the escape lane, perhaps as a warning to vehicles in danger of overshooting the escape lane itself. Similar signs may be found in other locations.


As mentioned above, the number of locations where escape lanes can be found has dwindled in the last couple of decades. However, a significant number survive across the country, including the following locations:

Escape lane
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A46 - Coppermine - 9773.jpgA9 Dunbeath escape lane - Coppermine - 20297.jpgEscape Lane - Coppermine - 12378.JPGEscape Lane - Coppermine - 12380.JPGWarning sign on Fish Hill (C) Peter Whatley - Geograph - 2381256.jpg
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