Survey casts further doubts over public perception of smart motorways

11.13 | 2 December 2019 | | 3 comments

Image: Highways England

More than two-thirds of drivers believe converting the hard shoulder into a running lane for traffic – a key feature of smart motorways – compromises safety for those who breakdown.

That’s according to the findings of a survey of drivers in England carried out by the RAC. The breakdown organisation says it is ‘imperative’ drivers have the confidence to know they will be protected from traffic in the event they suffer a breakdown on a smart motorway.

More than two-thirds (68%) of respondents said removing the hard shoulder creates additional risk for those who breakdown in a live lane.

Just over half (51%) said they know what to do if they breakdown on a smart motorway and are unable to reach a refuge area – with the RAC suggesting the rest remain ‘unclear’.

In terms of emergency refuge areas, 59% think the distance between these areas – up to 1.6 miles (2.5km) – is too great.

More than seven-in-10 (72%) are worried about not being able to reach an emergency refuge area if they break down. 

Nicholas Lyes, RAC head of roads policy, said: “Our research clearly demonstrates that many drivers have some serious concerns about certain aspects of ‘all lane running’ smart motorways. 

“Motorists strongly believe the permanent removal of the hard shoulder compromises safety and tell us that emergency SOS areas are located too far apart at intervals of up to 1.6 miles.

“We have consistently highlighted our concerns about this type of smart motorway to the Government, MPs and Highways England so we hope these findings add further support to our calls for action. 

“This is particularly relevant now as the transport minister has committed to reviewing the safety data from smart motorways.”

Smart motorways – evidence vs perception?
First introduced in 2006 (on the M42), smart motorways use variable speed limits to manage traffic and tackle stop-start congestion.

There are two types of smart motorway in the UK. The first, often referred to as ‘dynamic’, is where the hard shoulder is opened to traffic during busy periods. The second is where the hard shoulder is open all the time.

The controversy surrounding smart motorways relates to safety – despite Highways England’s repeated assurances they are as safe as the wider motorway network.

Over recent months, Highways England has defended the schemes – in the wake of a number of high-profile deaths, most notably on one 60 mile stretch of the M1.

The subject was passionately debated during the Question Time session at the 2019 National Road Safety Conference – with panellists suggesting more needs to be done to shift public opinion on their safety.

Highways England has committed to reducing the distance between emergency refuge areas to one mile apart on new smart motorway schemes (beginning construction in 2020).

The Government agency also says it is enhancing emergency areas by installing extra signage, using the internationally recognised SOS text and marking the bays in a high-visibility orange colour to make them as easy as possible to spot.



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    The stupidest idea ever to come from those designing these potential death traps. Drivers with perception are aware what might happen when there is no refuge for any driver to go if their vehicle stops abruptly. It might be thought that the newer the vehicle the less chance their is of that vehicle stopping. This may well be true on average but it is not valid that a new vehicle is immune from stopping hence a brand new car seen on the back of an AA pick up truck!
    Any car can stop abruptly and that is the exact reason for the necessity of an emergency refuge right along the motorway. No big gaps with laybys as that is not safe enough.
    A few seconds is all that is required for a family to be wiped right off the road and mangled to death before they have chance to avoid what is ploughing into their stationary vehicle. It is too stupid to even think about deleting the hard shoulder.
    Were the old road designers better at what they did decades ago? Yes they damn well were much safer that’s for sure.

    Michael Hall, NOTTINGHAM
    Agree (1) | Disagree (0)

    I have two concerns re smart motorways. One is the instruction on many signs to ‘Keep left unless overtaking’ which puts drivers into Lane One, the most dangerous lane because this is the one where a vehicle will breakdown, and be ran into, if it can’t reach a refuge area. The other is the difficulty of finding refuge areas in the dark on those sections of smart motorway that have no street lighting. I believe all Smart Motorways should have street lighting that should be on throughout all hours of darkness, not switched off midnight to 5 am

    Robert Bolt, St Albans
    Agree (10) | Disagree (0)

    Surely safety first is paramount! I have used the M42 which is Dynamic and I have often wondered what happens if one breaks down. I have seen drivers use the hard shoulder, just so they can pass a few cars then jump back on the motorway itself. Then there are the speedsters who think they are on a race track. The hard shoulder is there for a reason.

    I think I would be a nervous wreck, if I broke down on a stretch of motorway where the hard shoulder was in general use. How could you make sure a family is safe when you do not have the area free for breakdowns only. A disaster waiting to happen god forbid.

    Mike Hancox MD, Warwick
    Agree (15) | Disagree (1)

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