UK motorway traffic jam

Smart motorway potential ‘wasted’ by drivers concerned over safety

Image credit: Gorgios/Dreamstime

Half of drivers (49 per cent) say they frequently or occasionally avoid using lane one on ‘all lane running’ smart motorways without a hard shoulder, a survey has found.

The survey was commissioned by the RAC, which said it “completely undermines” the reason that smart motorways were introduced in the first place – to increase capacity on congested roads.

The research was conducted with 1,904 drivers who have driven on ‘all lane running’ smart motorways.

It found that a fifth (21 per cent) claimed to have frequently steered clear of the left-hand, inside lane, while 28 per cent admitted to doing so occasionally.

A majority of drivers (68 per cent) also said they regularly see motorists using other lanes when the inside lane is free.

Asked why they deliberately avoid driving in lane one, an overwhelming three-quarters (77 per cent) of drivers say they are worried they might encounter a stationary, broken-down vehicle as there is no hard shoulder while 40 per cent are fearful of being crashed into if they had to stop.

The rollout of smart motorways was paused in January by the Department for Transport (DfT) for five years so that it can collect more data on the safety of the scheme.

Last month, protesters carried coffins across London’s Westminster Bridge to represent deaths on smart motorways since they were first introduced in an effort to ease congestion.

The second most common reason for not using the inside-most lane on an ‘all lane running’ motorway, cited by 52 per cent of drivers, was the belief that it is mostly used by HGVs and would lead to them frequently having to overtake.

When questioned about what could be done to improve safety on smart motorways three-quarters of drivers (74 per cent) said they would feel safer if there were more refuge areas – with such areas a necessity on these stretches of road in the absence of the hard shoulder.

Seventy-two per cent would be reassured by technology that detects stranded vehicles while 56 per cent want to see more gantry signs which show the speed limit and whether lanes ahead are closed. Fifty-six per cent also want cameras to be used to enforce the ‘red X’ closed-lane signs, something which is only just beginning despite almost all cameras having been ready to do this since April this year.

National Highways, which is responsible for England’s major roads, now has 122 enforcement cameras automatically detecting vehicles that ignore red-X lane-closed signs, which are displayed when there is an incident in the lane ahead.

The organisation is also rolling out radar technology to help identify stopped or broken-down vehicles on ‘all lane running’ smart motorways more quickly and effectively.

RAC road safety spokesperson Simon Williams said: “Ever since the first ‘all lane running’ smart motorway opened on the M25 in April 2014 there has been a considerable amount of controversy about safety which worsened significantly following several high-profile fatal collisions.

“Consequently, these roads continue to be deeply unpopular with drivers who, before their introduction, had been used to having the relative refuge of a hard shoulder available in an emergency.

“On top of this our latest research worryingly shows that half of drivers actively avoid using the inside-most lane for a variety of reasons, not least the fear of being crashed into, meaning much of the extra carriageway capacity they were meant to bring is wasted.

“Motorists know they should always drive in the left-most lane they can, but with so many feeling theirs and their passengers’ lives are in jeopardy, it’s going to be very hard to convince them otherwise no matter how much extra safety technology is introduced.”

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