Tunnel safety

Third of UK drivers risk dying in a road tunnel fire

14 August 2008

Third of UK drivers risk dying in a road tunnel fire

Third of UK drivers risk dying in a road tunnel fire

Inexperience of driving through tunnels and lack of awareness of safety procedures could kill almost one in three UK drivers confronted by a major lorry fire in a tunnel, AA/Populus research has uncovered.

Members of the AA/Populus panel were asked which course of action they would take if, while driving through a tunnel, a lorry caught fire in front of them.

More than two thirds correctly said they would save themselves by looking for and following signs to escape routes or safe havens.

However, the other third would apparently put their lives at serious risk by:

  • Trying to help the lorry driver or fight the fire – 12%
  • Sitting in their car and waiting for instructions from the tunnel control – 7%
  • Trying to drive away or round the burning lorry – 6%
  • Getting out of the car and running away – 3%
  • Not knowing what they would do – 5%

Although there are barely a dozen major tunnels in the UK, drivers holidaying on the Continent will encounter numerous tunnels, particularly across the Alps and Pyrenees.

As well as notorious deadly fires at Mont Blanc 1999, Gotthard 2001 and Frejus 2005, three lorries and 15 cars piled up in an Austrian road tunnel at Ofenauer in January, severely injuring three motorists. Nine months ago a fire in a Californian tunnel just an eighth of a mile long incinerated 15 trucks and two cars, killing two motorists – the pictures graphically illustrating the intensity of tunnel fires.

In the UK, the Road Tunnel Safety Regulations came into effect in 2006 which incorporated minimum safety standards, in accordance with the EU Tunnel Safety Directive 2004. The UK Government, however, failed to report on time the condition of seven tunnels covered by the directive.

Although this has now been done, it is unclear when the UK will conform with the directive and carry out improvements required by 2014.

UK drivers' knowledge of tunnel safety procedures shows that their unfamiliarity could lead to fatalities that could be avoided

Paul Watters, AA head of public affairs

AA comment

"Although there are relatively few tunnels in the UK, some are on major commuter routes for tens of thousands of drivers each day. The AA Populus survey of UK drivers' knowledge of tunnel safety procedures shows that their unfamiliarity could lead to fatalities that could be avoided," says Paul Watters, the AA's head of public affairs.

"The AA/European Tunnel Assessment Programme, supported by the EC, has allowed independent inspection of some of the biggest tunnels in Europe over the last three years. However, in the UK, its highly qualified independent engineers have been turned away from some of the most critical underground routes in the country and so progress on meeting minimum safety standards in the UK cannot be reviewed".

Fact file

Populus received 15,306 responses from AA members to its online poll between 4 & 16 July 2008

It is estimated that it would cost £90m to bring the relevant UK tunnels up to standard. When implemented, the improvements could save £7m in death and injury over a 15-year period. (Source: Department for Transport)

If you're driving in Europe this summer read AA advice on tunnel safety before you go.