Smart Motorways Are Essentially Unsafe, Say UK Drivers

More than two-thirds (68%) of drivers in England questioned by the RAC think removing the hard shoulder, as is happening on the ever-increasing number of the country’s smart motorways, compromises safety for those who breakdown in a live lane.

To increase capacity on the country’s busiest roads over one hundred miles of hard shoulder have been converted by Highways England into running lanes for traffic, many removed permanently on  ‘all lane running’ smart motorways. On these stretches, SOS refuge areas are spaced up to 1.6 miles (2.5km) apart.

The RAC Report on Motoring 2019 found a considerable level of concern about the potential impact of breakdowns or accidents on safety and congestion on this new type of motorway.

Among those motorists who say they have driven on an ‘all lane running’ smart motorway, seven-in-10 (72%) are worried about not being able to reach an emergency SOS area if they break down. Only 10% are not bothered by this whereas nearly a fifth (18%) didn’t have an opinion either way.

Data for the RAC Report on Motoring also revealed six-in-10 drivers (59%) think the distance between SOS areas, at up to 1.6 miles (2.5km) apart, is too great, with only 13% disagreeing and 28% not expressing a view.

Only half of drivers who have driven on an ‘all lane running’ smart motorway (51%) say they know what to do if they break down and are unable to reach a refuge area, meaning the remainder are unclear.

When incidents occur on smart motorways, lanes are closed via a red X which is illuminated either on the digital gantries located above the lane or on verge-mounted variable message signs. This includes the inside lane, which was formerly the hard shoulder but is now a permanent running lane.

This affords broken-down drivers some protection as long as lanes are closed quickly and other motorists obey the signs. When those with experience of ‘all lane running’ smart motorways were asked whether most motorists abide by ‘red Xs’, 62% said they felt they did, but almost one-in-five (18%) claimed they did not. Separate RAC research conducted earlier this year revealed that more than a fifth of drivers (23%) have driven in a closed lane. Highways England is due to begin using enforcement cameras to catch those ignoring ‘red Xs’ imminently.

There is also a very strong feeling among motorists about the impact of an ‘all lane running’ incident on traffic flow with 77% of motorists stating that a breakdown on a live lane leads to increased congestion. On a more positive note, more than half of motorists surveyed by the RAC (55%) agree that smart motorways are a cost-effective way to increase capacity on congested motorways, with only 15% disagreeing (30% did not express a view).

Insurance Edge Comment;

Given that Mr Dukinfield was again cleared of blame in the Hillsborough deaths, it seems unlikely that those who have sanctioned the de facto abolition of hard shoulders will ever face prosecution when the inevitable motorway pile-up occurs. It is quite wrong to compromise safety simply to ease peak time congestion. Yet nobody is being held accountable for this terrible decision making process.

If a director at an insurer or broker decided that an oil tanker didn’t need to slow down in the busy Channel when it was foggy, and communicated that view to to the Captain, there would be a court case. We all know that.

Providing immunity from prosecution over deaths, or life-changing consequences, because someone works within the public sector is not a solution to this problem.

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