Smart motorways without hard shoulders are safer, claims Highways England
Motorways are safer without hard shoulders, according to those in charge of England’s busy road network – despite motoring groups and emergency services staff criticising all-lane-running smart motorways.
Matt Pates, the East Midlands regional traffic operations manager for Highways England, said hard shoulders were not a ‘hospitable’ place for drivers to be and smart motorways were ‘as safe, if not safer’ without them.
That’s despite recent cases of motorists being killed on sections of smart motorway, vehicle recovery operators stating that it puts their breakdown technicians in danger, and police and ambulance services complaining they make it more difficult for them to attend emergencies.
Mr Pates was talking to the BBC as part of a new feature looking into smart motorways and how they work.
He said the need for hard shoulders had become redundant because modern cars are now fitted with technology that warns the driver when they’re about to break down, giving them plenty of time to take action and exit a motorway.
He also argued that vehicles are more reliable today than ever before and the chances of suffering a reliability issue are at an all time low.
All-lane-running (ALR) is just one of three smart motorway categories, however, it’s the only one where there are large sections without a hard shoulder and is causing the most concern.
Instead of a permanent hard shoulder, existing ALR smart motorways have ’emergency refuge areas’ every 1.55 miles (2.5km), which some organisations say is not enough.
AA president Edmund King previously argued: ‘Improving capacity and easing congestion on our motorways is key for the economy, but not at the expense of safety.
‘The gap between emergency refuge areas has been a major concern.’
Highways England reacted to ongoing calls for a better system by announcing that these short – usually less than 100 metres long – refuge areas would be installed every one mile – where applicable – for new projects.
And it isn’t just ALR sections that have no immediate safe place to pull-over.
Dynamic hard shoulder (DHS) smart motorways – which have variable speed limits and a hard shoulder that can be turned into a fourth lane when congestion levels are high – are also without a permanent emergency lane during peak hours.
As a result, approximately 113 miles of motorway in England currently have no hard shoulder and around 400 miles in total have been converted to smart motorways.
Jack Cousens, head of roads policy at the AA, said smart motorways do not offer sufficient provisions for drivers who have a breakdown, and can cause motorists to panic if they cannot find somewhere safe to pull off fast-moving carriageways.
This is especially the case for those who suffer tyre punctures, immediate loss of engine power or are involved in collisions with other vehicles.
‘It’s expansion on the cheap,’ Mr Cousens told the BBC.
‘We get the need to deal with congestion but safety can’t be the compromising factor.
‘We want [Highways England] and the Department for Transport to go back to the drawing board and make sure this is the best thing we could be doing.’
Concerns regarding the safety of smart motorways were heightened by two deaths that took place on the same section of ALR motorway on the M1 in Derbyshire.
In March, 83-year-old Derek Jacobs died after his van came to a halt – ‘possibly due to a mechanical problem’, police said – on a section or motorway without a hard shoulder.
Just six months earlier a woman was killed after a breakdown on the very same stretch of road.
Emergency services staff and vehicle recovery mechanics have also been critical of smart motorways, saying they can make it difficult for them to respond to urgent calls and conduct their jobs safely.
PC Stuart King from the motorway police said in a BBC interview: ‘We have to force our way through the small gaps between lorries, cars and whereas before we would use the hard shoulder to get there much quicker. We are now stuck.’
Dave Poole, a motorway recovery mechanic said the removal of hard shoulders puts him and fellow breakdown service providers at risk.
‘[For] people that have to go down and work on the motorways, that’s where the element of risk increases,’ he said.
‘There’s no consequence to the general public unless a member of the public’s vehicle has a catastrophic failure, the electrics go and they have to abandon it in what is potentially a live lane.
‘We’re the people that are at risk everyday and the longer we’re down there, the more at risk we are. By taking this away they’re actually risking more lives.’
While Mr Pates defended the use of smart motorways, he also revealed to the BBC that a technical glitch last month caused huge disruption for motorists.
On June 20 the system automatically closed three lanes on a stretch of motorway between Leicester and Nottingham for no reason, causing a huge jam for miles.
Mr Pates said Highways England was unable to override the computer system, which would not reopen the lanes. Highways England said cases of technical glitches were ‘extremely rare’.
As of last month, drivers who ignore lane closure warning signs on smart motorways in England will be issued with automatic £100 fines and penalty points.
A closed lane on smart motorway is indicated by a ‘Red X’ displayed on an electronic overhead gantry and instructs motorists to move to another lane that’s running normally to avoid an incident ahead.
A recent survey suggests more than a fifth of drivers have been ignoring closed lane warnings until now, which is one of the reasons for the introduction of penalties confirmed by the Home Office.