Survey casts further doubts over public perception of smart motorways

11.13 | 2 December 2019 |

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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