Getting rid of hard shoulders on some of our busiest stretches of motorway could increase the dangers faced by drivers who break down, experts warn.
Safety campaigners have raised concerns about government plans to increase motorway capacity by scrapping hard shoulders on some of the country’s busiest routes.
Highways England last month announced the latest stages in its roll-out of the “smart motorway” system, which is already in place on parts of the M42, M1 and M25 among others.
Extra capacity promised
Over the next five years, new sections of smart motorway will be added to the M4, M20 and further stretches of the M25.
Smart motorways increase capacity without the need for expensive and time-consuming widening programmes by letting motorists drive on the hard shoulder.
In some cases, known as dynamic hard shoulder motorways, this lane is only used for traffic during the rush hour.
But in the alternative “all-lanes-running” configuration, the hard shoulder becomes a permanent fourth lane.
Serious safety risk
It is the latter type of motorway that experts believe is creating a serious safety risk.
This is because motorists who are forced to stop due to a breakdown or for health reasons could be put in serious danger – as could any emergency services or roadside assistance providers.
On the proposed all-lane-running motorways that are being introduced over the next few years, the emergency refuge areas (ERAs) for broken-down vehicles will be spaced as far apart as 2.5km.
By way of contrast, ERAs were generally between 500m and 800m apart on the first smart motorways.
RAC chief engineer David Bizley said: "Smart motorways are on the whole a positive step to improve capacity and traffic flow on England's motorways.
“The dynamic hard shoulder configuration, where the hard shoulder is used as an extra lane for vehicles at busy or congested times, has a track record of being significantly safer than a conventional three-lane motorway with a hard shoulder.
"As the inside lane can be turned back into a hard shoulder under this model, it provides a relatively safe environment for anyone who breaks down or has to stop in an emergency.
“However, we believe the other form of smart motorway where all lanes are permanently used for traffic is less safe as it does not have this option.”
‘More dangerous and more congested’
Bizley said that in the latter case, Highways England can “close” the inside lane by putting a red X sign on overhead gantries leading up to any incident.
But RAC research has found that motorists are less likely to obey such signs.
Sian Berry from the Campaign for Better Transport said: “We have major concerns about the safety to road users with the loss of the hard shoulder as a place to stop in an emergency.
“This will only make the motorway more dangerous and congested when anyone breaks down.”
Berry added that Highways England’s own studies had found that a lack of hard shoulder makes roads more dangerous for anyone who is unlucky enough to break down, and that the police had made objections to the this type of smart motorway scheme.
AA calls for review
Edmund King, AA president, said: "Removing the hard shoulder from 500 miles of English motorway over the next six years to make them smart motorways has major ramifications.
“With emergency refuges spaced at 2.5km we fear many drivers in a breakdown situation will not reach one and thus become very vulnerable when they stop in a live traffic lane.”
King said the AA called for a review of hard shoulder removal.
“At the very least we would like to see the spacing between emergency refuges reduced,” he added.