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Motorists unhappy with smart motorways, RAC survey finds

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The majority of British motorists (68 per cent) say that removing the hard shoulder on ‘smart motorways’ compromises the safety of drivers.

To increase capacity on the country’s busiest roads, over one hundred miles of hard shoulder have been converted by Highways England into running lanes for traffic including parts of the M1, M4, M5, M6, M42 and M62. Smart motorways were first approved in 2015.

Many hard shoulders have been removed permanently on ‘all lane running’ smart motorways and on these stretches, with SOS refuge areas spaced up to 1.6 miles apart.

A survey in the RAC Report on Motoring 2019 found that 72 per cent of smart motorway users are worried about not being able to reach these areas if they break down and nearly three-fifths (59 per cent) of those questioned think the distance between them is too far.

Only half of drivers who have driven on an ‘all lane running’ smart motorway (51 per cent) say they know what to do if they break down and are unable to reach a refuge area, meaning the remainder are unclear.

All-lane running smart motorways permanently use the hard shoulder for live traffic, while dynamic schemes only open the lane to traffic during busy periods.

Once incidents such as a breakdown or collision are identified on smart motorways, lanes are closed via an illuminated red X on digital displays.

There is also a very strong feeling among motorists about the impact of an ‘all lane running’ incident on traffic flow with 77 per cent of motorists stating that a breakdown on a live lane leads to increased congestion.

On a more positive note, more than half of motorists surveyed by the RAC (55 per cent) agree that smart motorways are a cost-effective way to increase capacity on congested motorways.

However, there is concern about Highways England’s ability to detect stationary vehicles in running lanes, and the number of drivers who don’t acknowledge lane closure signs.

The RAC is calling on the Government to ensure the latest stopped vehicle detection technology is retrofitted on all smart motorways, and for more emergency refuge areas to be built.

The organisation’s head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: “Our research clearly demonstrates that many drivers have some serious concerns about certain aspects of all-lane running smart motorways.

“We, and drivers generally, understand there is a need to increase capacity on our motorway network with traffic levels forecast to grow.

“However, this should only be done using the latest design features and technology so schemes are not only as safe as possible but also make motorists feel safe driving on them.

“Sadly, only a fraction of all-lane running smart motorways operating today have SOS areas spaced at intervals of up to a mile and stopped vehicle detection technology installed.”

A review into driver safety on smart motorways was launched by transport secretary Grant Shapps last month, to which he told MPs “we know people are dying” on the roads but said greater detail is required on how safe they are compared to full motorways.

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