Line markings are one of the most important and yet underestimated aspects of road safety. Far from simply separating traffic, they offer a seamless communication to road users as to where they should be and what they are permitted to do in order to ensure maximum safety as well as ease of use. And while it is true that cars have been on the road far longer than road markings have been in use, the sheer number of vehicles we have on the road these days (an estimated 2 billion by 2035) means that well maintained roads, and especially road markings, are essential.
Most road users will know the frustration of old, faded road markings, whether it be in a car park or on the road itself. However, the frustration of not being able to see line markings clearly can turn into an actual safety risk by causing confusion for road users, especially on motorways and dual carriageways where people are driving at high speeds. These so-called ‘ghost markings’ can also be a costly problem for highway maintenance services and so finding the right solution that both keeps costs down in the long term, prevents extra damage to road surfaces and keeps road users as safe as possible can be challenging.
What are ghost markings?
When the layout of a road or highway changes and new road markings are drawn to redirect the flow of traffic, the original markings will still be visible even after they have been removed. They appear as a faint white line, or ‘ghost mark’ as they are more commonly known. Ghost markings are occasionally painted black in order to disguise them and avoid confusion for road users, but these can still become visible during extremely sunny conditions.
How do ghost markings affect road safety?
Ghost markings can cause many inconveniences and issues for road users. This is especially true for new or inexperienced drivers who must already focus on multiple things at once and may easily get confused, particular on roads with high speeds where they must make decisions quickly. Driving instructors themselves have stated that ghost markings can cause unnecessary confusion for both student drivers and experienced ones and a lack of confidence in which lane you should be using could potentially result in an accident.
Adverse weather conditions can also have a significant effect on how visible ghost markings can be. Sunny conditions, for example, tend to highlight even faded markings and rainy conditions make visibility that much more difficult on high speed roads.
Ghost makings are also potentially problematic for future-proofing our roadways for a more mainstream introduction of self-driving vehicles. Once a science fiction concept, driverless cars are now a very real possibility in our day-to-day lives but unfortunately, these vehicles rely heavily on sensor technology which uses road markings as an indicator to tell them where they should go. Because our road markings change so frequently, whether it’s due to vandalism, long-term exposure to the elements, or changed to the layout of the road, this poses a major challenge for the future of self-automated vehicles. Clear white marks are vital in ensuring that this technology works effectively and safely.
How can we solve the issue?
Of course, where there is a need for new road markings, old one are already removed wherever possible. Removing them without any trace whatsoever is, however, a challenge. Not only can this be a very costly process, but it can even risk damage to the road itself. Not only does this add extra financial burden to repair the damage, but extra inconvenience is caused to road users when lanes are closed due to construction work.
However, there is progress being made in finding the most cutting edge technology and materials to make this process as easy as possible. Last year, Highways England spent £685,000 on an international research project in an attempt to find the most effective long-term solution for maintaining road markings and removing old ones.
A competition, named “Transforming Road Marking”, was launched which would allow products from around the world to be tested to remove the issue of road damage when removing old markings. Entries were separated into five material categories: thermoplastics, cold plastics, tapes, water-based paints, as well as ‘others’.
Since the competition was launched, eight winners have now been chosen, their materials tested in all weathers on a stretch of the M5 in the south west.