Thursday, July 2The place for automotive information

Smart motorways – a danger to the roads?

All Torque’s Phil Curry looks at how new plans for extra lanes on UK motorways could prove dangerous to drivers…

Smart motorways are slowly creeping up on British drivers, as transport executives look to ways to increase road capacity with as little cost as possible.

Gone are the days of adding new lanes to the country’s congested motorways. Many will remember the odd lane being put either side of stretches of the M25, or the huge project to upgrade the M1 between junctions 6 and 10, which saw two lanes added each side. In fact, the M1 project saw the problem with this philosophy, with a large number of bridges over the road needing to be demolished, and junctions upgraded, to cope with the new widths.

Therefore, the cheaper solution is to remove the hard shoulder from the motorway, build some laybys, or refuge areas, and convert the motorway to ‘all-lane running’. Originally this was done with some stretches of road only opening the hard shoulder in serious congestion, however, plans are to now remove the hard shoulder completely on hundreds of miles of motorway.

The argument that the government makes is that modern cars are more reliable and robust, meaning there are less breakdowns on motorways, so refuge areas every mile are more relevant today than the hard shoulder. However, anyone sat in traffic during roadworks when these smart motorways are installed, due to an accident or breakdown, will testify that a stranded vehicle in a live lane can cause chaos.

Safety aspects

There is a real worry about safety with smart motorways. During the upgrade of the M25 between junctions 5 and 6, a motorist died when their car electrics failed while travelling at night. With nowhere to pull in, and no lights due to the failure, his car was hit by a lorry at 50mph.

According to the AA, eight out of 10 drivers think that removal of hard-shoulders on smart motorways has made motorways more dangerous than four years ago, according to a poll of 20,845 drivers.

Some drivers even refer to the lay-bys on these motorways as ‘death zones’.

The AA has raised concerns over motorway safety in a recent letter to the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling MP. Prior to that the AA raised the issue with the Road Safety Minister, Highways England CEO and the Transport Select Committee.

The main concern is the lack of lay-bys when the hard-shoulder is used as a running lane for the 130,000 AA members (and thousands of others) who breakdown on motorways each year. The Highways England guidance is for the Emergency Refuge Areas (ERA) to be no more than 2.6km apart (approx. 1.5 miles) whereas the AA would like to see at least twice as many lay-bys and they should be twice the length.

What to do

Now, a study conducted by the RAC with more than 2,000 motorists found that 52% of those asked did not know what an emergency refuge area on a smart motorway was – a disturbing finding as they are intended to be a safe haven for broken-down or accident-stricken vehicles to stop in in the absence of a hard shoulder.

In addition, there was also considerable confusion about how to use emergency refuge areas, with two-thirds neither knowing what to do after stopping (64%) nor how to re-join the motorway (65%). And, even of the 1.5% who had actually used an emergency refuge area, only one respondent knew that they should contact Highways England to facilitate their getting back on to the motorway if the hard shoulder was operating as a running lane for traffic. Everyone else thought they should just wait for a gap in the traffic and then accelerate as quickly as possible to motorway speed.

There was, however, good awareness of when it is appropriate to stop in an emergency refuge area. Almost every motorist (98%) said they should be used in a breakdown situation and 90% stated they should be used after an accident, but four in 10 (40%) also thought it was appropriate to use an emergency refuge area for medical reasons such as needing to take medication. Worryingly, 27% thought they could be used for either the driver or a passenger to be sick.

There is another issue as well. For some, travelling on a motorway is an anxious time, and not having a place to stop immediately if there is a problem is certain to add to that feeling. A number of drivers attempt to avoid smart motorway sections, even if their car is working perfectly, just in case.

Driver ignorance

There is also the question of driver awareness of what to do when driving on a smart motorway. A recent campaign by the Highways Agency has seen TV and radio adverts trying to educate drivers not to drive through a red X sign over a lane, indicating that it is closed. This is an illegal move and can carry a fine and licence points at worst, or a retraining course at best.

However, many motorists ignore the red X, and use the lane as it is clear, to jump the queues, often at speed. This leads to a dangerous situation when they approach emergency services or the stranded vehicle, potentially causing an accident or adding to congestion.

While the cost benefits are clear, playing with driver safety is something that needs to be taken seriously. Therefore, the UK government needs to think very carefully before adding to the miles of smart motorways already created in the UK.