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How safe is full time hard shoulder running?

When the Highways Agency prepared to activate England’s first ever stretch of hard shoulder running on the 42 in late 2004, it faced a barrage of complaints from concerned motoring organisations and safety groups.

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Back then, simply the idea of allowing traffic to run, even intermittently, on the hard strip usually reserved for emergencies had many doubting whether it could be done safely.

“When all lane running is introduced 15 of the top 20 risks decrease”

Andrew Page-Dove Highways Agency

Eight years later, and despite the widespread roll out of its managed motorway programme, the Agency is having to respond to similar concerns again. This time it is because of the introduction of the latest incarnation of its managed motorway programme, all-lane running, or MM-ALR as the agency is calling it.

The plan is that from 2014 all new managed motorway schemes will have hard shoulders converted into full time running lanes to a new standard introduced last year. The first to come on stream are likely to be on the M1 and M25.

Several police forces have already expressed concern about the implications (News last week). Yet the facts seem to rest in the Agency’s favour. In the years since activating hard shoulder running, the frequency and severity of accidents on the M42 has fallen according to a three year study published in 2011.

Journey times and reliability improved as well, all delivered at a lot less cost than building more lanes. Encouraged by economic recession, managed motorway has become the preferred means of adding capacity to motorways in England and its new form is set to be substantially cheaper still.

Because, as well as negating the necessarily detailed and laborious processes of switching peak time hard shoulder running on and then off again, the new standard for MM-ALR reduces the number of overhead gantries needed and increases the distance between emergency refuge areas up to a maximum of 2.5km.

In reality, this time around, as engineers prepare to start the first projects to the new standard, the complaints are not as widespread as in 2004.

A spokesman for motorists’ organisation the RAC said the organisation is “unlikely to have any objections to all-lane running” because its experience of the M42 has been so good.

It adds: “If we’re called out to a customer on the M42, the Highways Agency gets one of its traffic officer units out to help straight away.”

But the new MM-ALR proposal is significantly different from the existing so-called “dynamic” hard shoulder running. Whereas the latter is switched on only when traffic levels reach their peak and speeds are relatively low, the new motorway design presents the prospect of vehicles using all lanes at higher speeds during off -peak periods.

The increased risk of serious accidents resulting from vehicles stopping in live lanes was the chief concern expressed by South Yorkshire Police in a BBC documentary in November last year.

In response, the Agency’s managed motorway all lane running programme leader Andrew Page-Dove, says: “Vehicles stopping in live lanes will increase in probability, but this is not necessarily more dangerous and nor should it result in more severe accidents.”

This type of incident is one of the 135 hazards included in the Agency’s process of risk analysis to assess MM-ALR. More specifically, it is the third greatest risk (after driver fatigue and excessive speed) in a top 20 that accounts for 90% of the “risk volume” in the Highways Agency’s analysis.

“The base line of the analysis is a three lane motorway with hard shoulder running,” explains Page- Dove. “When ALR is introduced 15 of the top 20 risks decrease in magnitude. Some risks go up because the road has changed but we get an overall improvement of 15%, plus we get the congestion and cost efficiency benefits.”

While the Agency’s main objective is to deliver traffic flow improvements and safety at considerably less cost, Page-Dove says it has also been working hard to make the change to all-lane running as intuitive as possible. This is one area where opinions differ on which type of design is safest.

Page-Dove insists that it is “very important” that drivers understand how to behave.

“At the moment, drivers only use the hard shoulder when told they can. When it’s not in use, there is no indication of this. We wanted to give a clear message that they can use the hard shoulder at all times unless instructed otherwise,” he says.

Yet chief inspector Stuart Walne, head of roads policing for South Yorkshire, told NCE that he thinks MM-ALR is more hazardous because it will remove the need for drivers to think about whether they can use the hard shoulder.

Somewhere in the middle of these two positions is Jacobs road safety auditor and chair of Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation’s road safety panel Kate Carpenter.

“The key thing is ensuring drivers understand what is expected of them,” she says. “At present, when dynamic hard shoulder running is activated there is a problem of drivers switching lanes suddenly because they incorrectly think they should not be on the hard shoulder when travelling through a junction. In theory, there will be no ambiguity with ALR.

“There may be a disadvantage due to drivers having to stop in live lanes, but we cannot be sure at present because this about human behaviour. It’s too early to know if there will be any practical problems,” she adds.

“The key thing is ensuring the drivers understand what is expected of them”

Kate Carpenter, Chartered Institutions of Highways & Transportation

From this it’s simple to conclude that the Agency again has to continue with its new manifestation of hard shoulder running in order to prove it. It may also have to work on some operational procedures with South Yorkshire Police.

Walne says he visited colleagues in the West Midlands to see how they operate on the M42 and found “little in comparison” to the MM-ALR scheme designed for the M1.

“They have 100% CCTV coverage and a high level shared control centre,” he explains. “There isn’t the same control planned for the M1. We have to have people on the scene of an incident if we cannot see it 100% and there is a limit to communications. The Agency can’t listen to all we are doing and we need to know if it’s safe to reverse up the hard shoulder.”

In response the Agency maintains that it is still keen to work with South Yorkshire Police to develop further mitigating operational procedures in the run up to the first MM-ALR schemes going live in 2014.

According to Page-Dove the Agency may also introduce further means of automatic incident detection. “We’re looking at new technologies to help that in future, to get greater compliance when looking at roadworks and detection of vehicles stopped in live lanes,” he says.

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