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Drivers do not understand smart motorways, claims research

Smart  motorway

Highways England should do more to educate drivers about smart motorways and how to use them safely according to an independent watchdog.

Transport Focus has called on the government agency to increase drivers’ knowledge on what to do if they break down and what a red X means.

According to its latest research it said when travelling on a motorway without a hard shoulder safety was not at the forefront of drivers minds and few knew what to do if they broke down.

One motorway user said in the report: “Touch wood, I’ve never broken down on a motorway. If I did break down, yes, I can see there being some risk of someone coming into the back of you.” Birmingham, infrequent leisure user

The lobby group has said it wants Highways England to help drivers understand what smart motorways are designed to achieve and how they work and reassure drivers that they were safe despite having no hard shoulder.

Highways England is currently trialling “highly” visible orange emergency areas on the M1, M3, M5 and M25. It said the colour should make them easier to spot and discourage drivers from using them in non-emergency situations.

It also said, pending the results of the current trial, it wanted the government to roll out the orange surface and new signage to emergency refuge areas as quickly as possible.

Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said: “What’s been missing until now is an understanding of how road users experience smart motorways.

“The message to Highways England is that many millions of drivers successfully use smart motorways, but there is more to do to improve their understanding of how they work and what you should do if you break down.

“Road users tend to trust that ‘the authorities’ would not allow motorways without a hard shoulder if it was unsafe. Highways England must remain vigilant that their trust is not misplaced.”

Highways England chief highways engineer Mike Wilson said Britain’s motorways were some of the safest in the world but it recognised it needed to make improvements to smart motorways to give drivers more confidence when using them.

“Smart motorways are central to the modernisation of England’s motorways,” said Wilson. “They provide additional capacity by making the hard shoulder available as a traffic lane, provide emergency areas for drivers to stop and use variable speed limits to smooth traffic. Our evidence shows that they are as safe as other motorways, some of the safest roads in the world.

“We recognise motorists need to be confident using smart motorways, and are already making improvements such as improving signs and painting emergency areas bright orange. We also have an ongoing campaign aimed at improving understanding and making it clearer where drivers can stop in an emergency.

“We welcome Transport Focus views and will combine them with our own insight to continue to raise awareness and build confidence among drivers.”

Wilson said refuge areas on smart motorways were, on average, every 2km with research showing most drivers encountering problems would be able to reach the areas. However for those who could not, he said the technology used on smart motorways meant lanes could be closed to accommodate them.

In July this year, the Office of Road and Rail (ORR) published its annual assessment of Highways England’s performance. While the report said Highways England was performing well against most of its targets, it narrowly missed its targets on road user satisfaction and network condition for 2016-17. The ORR found road user satisfaction was 89.1% against a target of 90% – down from 89.3% last year. 

Readers' comments (1)

  • I think you should have included this useful link in your article:
    https://www.gov.uk/guidance/how-to-drive-on-a-smart-motorway#in-an-emergency

    I wouldn't know to phone 999 if I broke down in a running hard shoulder (as is the cast on the M1 J39 to J42) and could not get to an emergency layby.

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