Road and line markings are an essential part of our roadways and have been for over a hundred years. They not only act as a sort of universal language to road users, who study the various patterns in order to be allowed to legally drive, but they also have countless safety benefits. Despite their seemingly simple function, road markings could also be helping to pave the way for a more advanced future for road users in the form of autonomous vehicles.
And while markings will always depend on where you are in the world in terms of specific highways codes and international laws, the basic fundamentals are universally understood to a large enough extent that even driving abroad is possible for confident or experienced drivers.
The impact of road markings on driver behaviour
One of the most obvious ways in which road markings have an impact on our day to day driver behaviour is their influence on vehicle positioning, as well as general driving laws and etiquettes. The Highway Code, which every new driver must learn and pass in their driving theory test, literally contains questions referring to line markings. Just by their position, shape or colour, these markings inform drivers what they are and aren’t permitted to do on the road, creating a universal understanding that allows for a more seamless experience for everyone.
However, we may be more impacted by road markings than we initially are aware of. For example, the contours of any road have a significant impact on driver behaviour in terms of our position on the road. As road markings are located in the driver’s central field of vision, lane positioning becomes significantly easier.
Studies have even shown results showing that on roads without edge lines, drivers drive closer to the centre line. Seeing as road positioning is mostly influenced by a driver’s field of vision, this makes perfect sense. The centre line is located on the driver’s side of the vehicle, providing a clear and convenient reference used by drivers for lateral lane positioning.
How road markings will affect self-driving cars
Of course, lane positioning is not just something drivers themselves have to think about. Autonomous vehicles are one of the most anticipated technological developments in the way we travel. In some ways, this technology has already arrived for many everyday road users, such as cruise control, automatic braking, and lane detection.
This feature, for example, is one that many people rely on and can save lives. In order to operate safely and reliably however, line markings need to be clear and well maintained. However, as the future inevitably advances us to an even greater level of autonomous driving, something as simple as line markings will be vital in ensuring this becomes a reality.
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the U.S. The Department of Transportation describes five levels of automation, with each increase slowly placing less and less emphasis on the driver and more responsibility and emphasis on the technology inside the vehicle. And while the highest levels of automation – levels 3-5 – are not commercially available and likely won’t be for another 50-75 years, recognising what we need in order to achieve that level of automation is what will set the 21st century apart as an age for automated vehicles.
Line markings will not only increase in importance over these crucial years, but they will also need to take on special properties in order to tackle the challenges of complex road systems. For example, different coloured line markings for roadworks, toll roads and other areas of importance will also greatly assist autonomous vehicles with navigation. Furthermore, the real map of the future regarding autonomous vehicles that reach levels 3-5 is more likely than not a road system that is shared by users of many kinds of vehicles.
While a level 5 vehicle may be able to drive safely with no human assistance or reliance on road markings, plenty of drivers will still be driving systems only equipped up to level 3, or even vehicles with no automated systems. Ensuring that roadways are safe for a variety of drivers, not only those with the ability to purchase the most up to date technology, is the main priority, and road markings are crucial in keeping those types of vehicles safe.
Road markings and safety
It’s not just a seemingly science fiction future where cars drive themselves that road markings become crucial to safety. They are also vital in preventing accidents every single day already. It’s no secret that road accidents are a major safety concern for both drivers and passengers, especially since nearly all of them are preventable in one way or another. In fact, it’s estimated that in the UK alone, someone is either killed or seriously injured every 22 minutes. There have been countless studies performed over the years into causes of road accidents as well as prevention methods, road markings being one of them.
For example, the way certain road markings are designed and the specific shapes and curves that are used have been meticulously studied to provide the best results regarding speed reduction. On curved roads in particular, tests were carried out using a driving simulator to see what kinds of markings were most effective at influencing the driver’s speed when approaching a dangerous curve. Rumble strips in particular were shown to be most effective in alerting and forcing drivers to slow down when approaching areas such as roundabouts and other hazardous places.
Reflective properties and levels of reflectivity are also extremely important where road markings are concerned, and intricate tests have been carried out over the years to provide the optimal level to ensure driver safety. This is of course particularly important at night time when the reduction in light causes the driver’s field of vision to narrow and shorten. In conditions such as these, especially on main roads where cars are driving at a high speed with no external source of light from streetlamps, a reflective surface is a crucial safety feature.
Since we first introduced road markings to road systems, they have become indispensable to the way in which we travel. Not only are they a clear indicator of regulations alongside road signs and other traffic control measures, but they can also help to save lives and minimise accidents.
Not only have we continued to discover new ways of enhancing road markings with better and more long lasting materials, but over the course of the next few decades, we may find that they are one of the most important assets we have to a more technologically advanced way of life.