A new scheme will see motorway hard shoulders used as extra driving lanes, in a bid to tackle congestion. Is this wise, asks Sue Hayward.
The motorway hard shoulder has always been for emergency use only, such as in the event of a car breakdown.
But the introduction of "managed motorways" will see the hard shoulder used as an extra driving lane on some of the nation's major roads.
What are managed motorways?
Managed motorways use the hard shoulder as an extra driving lane, along with introducing variable speed limits, to ease the flow of traffic.
Motorway driving conditions are monitored by the Highways Agency's regional control centres, to calculate when an extra lane is needed or to impose variable speed limits.
"Managed motorways are about using the quickest and most efficient solution to tackle some of the countries busiest and most congested sections of motorway," says David Pilsworth from the Highways Agency.
"Overhead signs will make it clear what speed to travel, when to use the hard shoulder and about traffic conditions ahead."
Why are they being introduced?
"The aim of managed motorways is about making journey times more reliable for motorists, adding capacity and easing congestion," says Pilsworth.
There are plans for 11 managed motorways across the country.
The scheme forms part of the government's £1.4 billion road investment scheme.
The intention is that using the extra lane already on motorways should make better use of the existing road network and mean a reduction in the number of road widening schemes.
Where are these managed motorways?
The scheme is being rolled out nationally, with work being carried out on sections of the M62, M4, M5, M6 and M25.
The first section of managed motorway in the north of England opened just this week on 20 May: a 2.7 mile stretch of the M62 between junctions 27 and 28.
The first stretch of managed motorway was on the M42 in Birmingham back in 2006, and the pilot scheme proved so successful the government decided to replicate the idea.
Currently around 40 miles of motorway in England are managed motorways, with more than 20 miles across the West Midlands and the remainder on the M1 in Bedfordshire.
"The system aims to reduce the amount of accidents, and on the M42 we've already seen a reduction of over 50% in injury accidents," says Pilsworth.
Where can you stop if you break down?
You would usually pull over and stop on the hard shoulder of the motorway, but if it's a "managed" section you should pull into the emergency refuge area.
"Managed motorways like the M42, M1 and M6 have frequent refuges, usually every 500 yards," says Neil Greig, of the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM).
These refuge areas are wider than the standard hard shoulder and have emergency roadside phones with a direct line to a regional control centre.
However there are proposals for refuges to be spaced further apart, at up to 1.5 mile intervals, which could cause problems for motorists.
"Depending on what's wrong with your vehicle you're potentially less likely to be able to drive over a mile to a refuge area, which is an issue that does concern us," says Greig.
My motorway breakdown
I broke down late one night on the M1 a few years ago.
My car seemed to suddenly lose power, even with the accelerator pressed to the floor.
I was later told by the AA that the alternator had packed up.
But the sudden loss of power meant my instant reaction was to pull off the motorway and onto the relative safety of the hard shoulder.
This may not have been as easy on a managed motorway.
So what happens if you suffer a vehicle breakdown when the hard shoulder is in use as a driving lane?
"If you can't get to the refuge lane, stop and stay in your car for protection," says Greig.
You should never attempt to cross the carriageway under any circumstances to reach the motorway phones.
"On managed motorways there's a high level of CCTV coverage and Highways Agency traffic officers, so you should be noticed quickly, with help on the way."
Gantry signs warn drivers of breakdown ahead
The Highways Agency may then close down the hard shoulder lane and issue warnings to drivers further back on the motorway via gantry signage.
Your instinct may be to call your breakdown recovery service, but Greig says this isn't always the best move.
"People know which motorway they're on but don't always know the junction they've just passed or how far from it they are, which makes them difficult to find."
If you're on a busy stretch of motorway and even if you've got breakdown cover, the Highways Agency may make the decision to get you off the motorway for your own safety, says Greig.
What do you think?
Using the hard shoulder as an extra driving lane: a good way to ease traffic congestion or an accident waiting to happen?
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