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Special Road

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Special Road
A55 Secret Motorway restrictions at Llanddulas - Coppermine - 7708.jpg
Non-motorway Special Road NO sign
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For detailed information about this topic, see Pathetic Motorways: Special Roads

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. Motorways in the United Kingdom are a type of Special Road, though they are not the only type.

The opposite of a Special Road is an All-purpose Road.

Within the legislation written for each individual Special Road is stated the specified class(es) of traffic that are allowed to use them. For example, it is entirely permissible (though unusual) to provide a Special Road solely for the use of cyclists (Class VII), or solely for pedestrians (Class IX), or for both (Classes VII and IX) whilst not allowing any other types of traffic, including motorised traffic.

It is also important to note that there are a number of other differences between Special Roads and all-purpose roads; for example, public utilities such as gas mains or electrical cables are not allowed to be buried within the carriageway of a Special Road, and frontage development is not allowed.

Special Roads and Motorways

NO sign on Special Road section of A90
NO sign on Special Road section of A720
Signage on non-motorway Special Roads appears identical to that on all-purpose roads such as here on A1
Occasionally, like this example on A1, non-motorway Special Roads have End signage

The majority of Special Roads are motorways, which have been 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 only 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 often 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, with the most common difference being the addition of Class IV traffic. However, the existence of a NO sign should not be taken as proof of the existence of a non-motorway Special Road, and 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, and sometimes a NO sign is used to sign these.

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:

The following Special Roads used to exist:

  • M80 Hornshill - Stepps (became part of A806 when M80 Stepps to Haggs section opened)

Traffic Classes

The Special Roads Act defined nine classes of traffic, with Class X and XI being added in later legislation, as well as some of the wording updated. Note that the wording given in the table below is that found within the Special Roads Act for those classes first defined in that Act.

The current definitions of the traffic classes for Special Roads can be found in:

Class I Motor tractors, heavy motor cars, motor cars and motor cycles, and trailers drawn thereby, which comply with general regulations as to construction and use made under section thirty of the Road Traffic Act, 1930, and in the case of which the following conditions are satisfied, that is to say :—

(i)that the whole weight of the vehicle is transmitted to the road surface by means of wheels ;

(ii)that all wheels of the vehicle are equipped with pneumatic tyres ;

(iii)that the vehicle is not controlled by a pedestrian ;

(iv)that the maximum speed at which the vehicle may be driven under section ten of the Road Traffic Act, 1930, on roads which are not special roads is not less than twenty miles per hour.

Class II Motor vehicles and trailers the use of which for or in connection with the conveyance of abnormal indivisible loads is authorised by order made by the Minister under paragraph (b) of the proviso to subsection (1) of section three of the Road Traffic Act, 1930. Heavy and light locomotives when being used for or in connection with the conveyance of abnormal indivisible loads. Motor vehicles and trailers constructed for naval, military, air force or other defence purposes, the use of which is authorised by order made by the Minister under paragraph (b) of the proviso to subsection (1) of section three of the Road Traffic Act, 1930.
Class III Motor vehicles controlled by pedestrians.
Class IV All motor vehicles not comprised in Class I, Class II or Class III.
Class V Vehicles drawn by animals.
Class VI Vehicles (other than pedal cycles) drawn or propelled by pedestrians.
Class VII Pedal cycles.
Class VIII Animals ridden, led or driven.
Class IX Pedestrians
Class X Motor cycles with a cylinder capacity of less than 50cm3
Class XI Invalid carriages


Legal differences in traffic classes within the United Kingdom

There are some minor differences between the three United Kingdom legal jurisdictions as to the composition of the traffic classes.

For example, in England and Wales, Class IV is defined as specifically not including the newer Classes X and XI traffic, whilst in Northern Ireland this clarification of Class IV is not by way of traffic classes, but simply in the class definition wording in a similar manner to the original Special Roads Act.

In Scotland, the additional Classes X and XI are not defined and so have no legal meaning with regard to Special Roads in Scotland. Traffic that would be part of those classes in England and Wales and Northern Ireland are undefined in Scotland, save for not being part of any other class.

Examples of differences
Class England and Wales Scotland Northern Ireland
IV Specifically defined as not including Class X and XI Defined by wording only Defined by wording only
X Defined Not defined Defined
XI Defined Not defined Defined

Legal background

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 (RTRA), 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.

This is regulated by sections 17 and 17A of RTRA. As well as anything specified in the Scheme for the Special Road (a particular type of Statutory Instrument which operates like an Order), Section 17 specifies that regulations may be made to regulate traffic, and section 17A specifies that Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs - see RTRA sections 1, 6 and 9) and Speed Limit Orders (RTRA section 84) cease to apply to a Special Road as soon as it becomes a Special Road. A TRO can be applied specifically to a Special Road, but there is no implicit application to any Special Road.

This means that the default National Speed Limit does not apply to non-motorway Special Roads because it is enforced under The 70 Miles Per Hour, 60 Miles Per Hour and 50 Miles Per Hour (Temporary Speed Limit) Order 1977. Each Special Road in Great Britain therefore has its own speed limit which applies to cars and motorbikes - other vehicles, including vans, are still subject to the normal speed limits for their classes because they are set in RTRA - an Act of Parliament, rather than an Order which is a Statutory Instrument and Secondary Legislation.

The position in Northern Ireland is different because the Road Traffic Regulation (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 permits speed limits to be set for cars and motorbikes. As matters stand, however, there is only one non-motorway Special Road in Northern Ireland (Belfast's A12 Westlink), and its Order includes a speed limit of 50mph.

Learner Drivers

Learner drivers are permitted to use non-Motorway Special Roads, but until 4 June 2018, they were prohibited from driving on motorways. Learners accompanied by an approved instructor with dual controls are now permitted to use motorways, in response to the increasing differential between driving on a motorway and an all purpose route (i.e. traffic volumes, technology, signing, regulations).


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