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05 Sep 2019
Chris Torney Chris Torney

Smart motorways 'three times more dangerous' than regular motorways

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Smart motorway

New fears have been raised about the safety of the rapidly expanding smart motorway network in the UK.

Do you think all-lane motorways are more or less safe for drivers? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Over recent years, the government has implemented a programme of motorway upgrades aimed at increasing capacity on some of the country’s most congested roads.

Smart motorways typically work by allowing vehicles to use the hard shoulder – either just during busy periods or, in the case of ‘all lane running’(ALR) stretches, at all times.

But findings uncovered by the AA suggest that cars which break down on smart motorways face significantly higher levels of danger than vehicles which do so on traditional stretches of motorway.

This has left many motorists confused as to what the benefit of these advanced highway systems are if they increase the risk of an accident.

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Smart motorways ‘three times more hazardous’

The AA says it has found hazard log data compiled by Highways England – the organisation responsible for major roads in England – that suggests breaking down in a live ALR motorway lane can be up to three times more hazardous than doing so where there’s the possibility of taking refuge on an empty hard shoulder.

Motorists whose cars experience mechanical difficulties on an ALR motorway are advised to stop at the next emergency refuge area (ERA) – these are small bays located off the hard shoulder, and should be no more than 1.5 miles apart.

Vehicles that are unable to reach an ERA should move onto the verge – provided they are able to do so, and there is no safety barrier. But drivers whose cars have broken down completely face being stuck in a live motorway lane, reliant on being spotted either by human CCTV operators or by automated stationary vehicle detection (SVD) systems.

When such breakdowns are identified, the relevant lane will be closed to traffic – with a red X symbol shown on gantries ahead of the incident – until the vehicle can be rescued.

READ MORE: How to stay safe on the motorway

Wheel and warning triangle on road with car broken down in the distance

Average breakdown response time is 17 minutes

But according to the AA, Highways England data found that the average time it took for such a breakdown to be spotted when SVD was not in operation was more than 17 minutes. In one case, it took more than an hour for a halted vehicle to be seen.

“Expecting someone to wait in a dangerous and life-threatening position for 20 minutes is simply inexcusable,” said AA president Edmund King.

“This is a truly shocking revelation and shows just how dangerous it can be breaking down in a live lane. This highlights why growing numbers of the public are justified in their safety concerns over the removal of the hard shoulder.”

He added: “Until you are found by the camera you are a sitting duck.” King said that Highways England should have ensured that SVD was rolled out across the smart motorway network before it considered expansion.

But he pointed out that, even though there was in theory 100% CCTV coverage of ALR routes, drivers who suffered breakdown were at risk of not being spotted if the relevant camera was pointed in the wrong direction.

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“Stop removing the hard shoulder”

“The use of cameras has been sold to drivers on the premise that there is 100% coverage of the motorway,” King said. “That is only true if the camera is pointing in the direction you are travelling.

“This smoke and mirrors approach to the removal of the hard shoulder has gone on long enough. There have been too many incidents, too many near misses and too many excuses as to why promises have been bent or broken.

“We must stop removing the hard shoulder immediately and double the number of emergency refuge areas already in place.”

Highways England, however, said that smart motorways were safer overall than traditional motorways. Spokesman Max Brown explained:

“The evidence is clear that smart motorways improve safety, with or without automatic stopped vehicle detection systems. The latest generation of smart motorways have helped to improve safety by at least 25 per cent.

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Motorway with cars either side

Emergency refuge areas “a safer alternative” to hard shoulder

“Our trials on the M25 have shown that a stopped vehicle detection system can be a valuable extra tool to help spot incidents more quickly, and the technology is being designed into all the smart motorway projects that we start constructing from next year.

“Meanwhile we are looking how we could provide the same benefits on all our other recently opened smart motorway upgrades and work on installing a stopped vehicle detection system on the M3 smart motorway in Surrey and Hampshire is already underway.”

According to Highways England, a considerable proportion of motorway accidents have in the past involved vehicles running into the back of broken-down cars on hard shoulders. The organisation maintains that ERAs are a safer alternative because they are situated off the main carriageway and hard shoulder, and protected by safety barriers – significantly reducing the risk of vehicles being hit accidentally.

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Figures 'represent less than 5% of overall risk'

A few days after the findings were reported, Highways England issued a statement saying that the 216% figure was 'incorrect':

"This is one of over 140 hazards that exist on a motorway when driving. Others include driving too fast, driver fatigue and the risks associated with hard shoulders.

"Many of these hazards are reduced by the introduction of smart motorways. As we have always said the risk around stopping in a live lane increases, but this represents less than 5% of the overall risk of driving on a smart motorway."

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Do you think smart motorways are more or less safe? Let us know in the comments!

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