Documenting Problems That Were Difficult To Find The Answer To

What is the Price of Closing a Motorway for an Accident?


Having personally been parked on a motorway for 3 hours without any choice in the matter I have a keen sense of sympathy for the many who have also experienced an unexpected and unwanted imprisonment in their lives.

The argument, of course, is that a fatality is a tragic thing and that such an event should be dealt with and the incident area investigated without contamination.

But at what point is the cost to the public as a whole greater than the value of an uncontaminated accident scene? To some that may not have a price – but to others there is a level of reasonableness to consider.

The question is: what is the price to the public of a tailback?

What Price a Tailback?

Let’s consider an event that occurred on 1 November 2011 where the M25 was closed for 3 hours causing a 19-mile tailback.

How many vehicles would have been caught up in this queue? Assuming that each car consists of at least one working adult (the driver) how much is their time worth? This should give as a very basic cost basis of such an incident to the general public (not including lorries and business impact).

How Many Cars?

  • length of a BMW 3 Series: 4.5 metres
  • number of car lengths between cars in a queue: 2.0 (conservative guess)
  • distance taken by a single car: (2.0 + 1.0) x 4.5 = 13.5 metres
  • cars per kilometre: 74
  • cars per mile: 119

In a 3-lane tailback for 19 miles there would be approximately 19 x 3 x 119 = 6,783 cars involved all parked for 3 hours.

What Price Delay?

Let’s conservatively assume that each car contains one adult of working age and that over the span of vehicles those adults earn the average UK wage. Let’s bill their time delayed by their income for those hours delayed.

So, for 6,783 cars delayed for 3 hours at an average earning rate of £12.48 per hour per car we have a total cost of £253,853. Over a quarter of a million pounds and that’s a conservative estimate!

Should a Motorway be Completely Blocked if it Costs the Public a Quarter Million Pounds?

I cannot answer that. But it should make you think the next time the police completely shut off a motorway.

Fatal accidents are complicated things. But if a few cars get written off in an accident it would be cheaper just to tow those things off the road and buy the people involved brand new cars rather than hold up the (uninvolved and innocent) public.

Insurer’s Responsibilities?

I would argue that insurers must bear the cost of compensating directly affected drivers for the cost of their delay. It would be, arguably, infeasible to process separate personalised claims by every driver caught in the tailback. But given a record of vehicles on the motorway section at the time (from camera logs) and a calculated average loss to the public – each motorist should at least get £36 compensation mailed to them from the insurer of the responsible vehicle.

Think about it: the person responsible will likely get a brand new car from the insurance company – even though they caused the accident. But thousands of innocent motorists have time stolen from them with no compensation at present – and this cannot be right.

It would be entirely appropriate for insurance companies to levy different fees for insurance depending on whether motorists use the motorways or not. If you crash on a backroad and affect nobody it is right that nobody else gets compensated. But if you block a motorway and directly prevent motorists from escaping or getting around the incident then you should bear full liability to those people you are directly affecting. You might not have crashed into their car but you could be causing them great pain – missing a wedding, a flight, or getting to a hospital to deliver a baby!


All numbers here are estimates only – very basic – and a number of assumptions may have been missed. However the number derived should be viewed as an absolute minimum of the impact to the public – the true cost is likely to be far higher when taking into consideration missed appointments, spoiled items in vehicles, lorries and commercial vehicles also trapped, and consequential incidents occurring in the tailback.

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