Written evidence submitted by the Alliance of British Drivers (RSM0022)
1.1 The Alliance of British Drivers (ABD) campaigns for a better deal for Britain’s motorists. It is a voluntary organisation funded by subscriptions and donations from members and supporters. The ABD receives no funds from public bodies or private-sector businesses, so is truly independent. It is a member of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety and the National Council of Voluntary Organisations. It is also a member of Transport Focus’s Road User Panel.
1.2 The ABD has long been concerned about the safety of all-lane running smart motorways, but this concern has been heightened by the increase in fatal accidents on more recently completed sections. Reduction in the frequency of emergency refuge areas appears to be a significant factor in this trend.
2. The benefits of smart motorways
2.1 Smart motorways are a relatively low-cost means of increasing traffic capacity, but the cost savings have a trade-off with safety due to the lack of a continuous hard shoulder. ABD representatives met with the then Highways Agency in 2005 to look at its plans for the pilot scheme on the M42 east of Birmingham. While we had our reservations about safety, the frequency of refuge areas and the proposed level of monitoring to detect broken-down vehicles provided some reassurance.
2.2 The M42 is a relatively urban motorway with frequent junctions, which demands a high level of concentration in drivers. It is quite different from inter-urban sections of motorway where junctions are widely spaced and the driving task less demanding, so drivers may take longer to react to an obstruction in a live lane.
2.3 In view of the reduction in traffic levels as a result of the current pandemic, now may be a good time to pause the further roll-out of smart motorways until the extent of recovery in traffic flows becomes clearer.
3. The safety of smart motorways
3.1 On traditional motorways, a continuous hard shoulder is provided so that drivers have somewhere to pull off the carriageway in case of emergency or breakdown. While this does not provide total safety – almost a quarter of motorway deaths are recorded as involving a stationary vehicle on the hard shoulder – it does at least give the occupants of a broken down vehicle a reasonable chance of getting out of the danger zone to relative safety. This is not the case with all-lane-running smart motorways.
3.2 Even where emergency lay-by refuges are spaced relatively closely, e.g. at half-mile intervals, a vehicle suffering total loss of power may not be able to reach the next one, especially if the road is going uphill. The situation worsens with lengthening intervals between refuges.
3.3 Furthermore, when a vehicle that has stopped in a refuge wants to rejoin the motorway afterwards, it is not possible to accelerate in the distance available to match the speed of vehicles in Lane 1. Rejoining the motorway is thus more hazardous than doing so from a continuous hard shoulder.
3.4 A driver forced to stop in Lane 1 of an all-lane-running smart motorway is in critical danger from following vehicles. There is usually no way of getting off the road at all, as continuous steel barrier just one metre from the carriageway edge makes it impossible. (Major rural single or dual carriageway roads usually have verges onto which a driver could steer their vehicle in an emergency.)
3.5 Lane 1 is also the normal driving lane for heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), except when they are overtaking. HGVs are fitted with speed limiters, restricting them to 56mph (90km/h). These limiters are subject to a small tolerance, however, so some vehicles are slightly faster than others. If an HGV is gaining on a slower one ahead, the driver will usually wait until very close to the slower vehicle before pulling out to overtake. During the period of close following, the driver of the faster HGV will have virtually no view of the road ahead. If the driver of the leading HGV has to brake sharply because of a stationary or slow moving vehicle in Lane 1, there is a serious risk of a multiple collision.
3.6 The ABD believes it is grossly irresponsible for Highways England to bring sections of smart motorway into operation without systems in place to detect stationary vehicles, automatically deploy the necessary warning signs, and despatch Traffic Officers as quickly as possible to protect the scene.
4. What should be done to improve safety on smart motorways?
4.1 Highways England should immediately suspend all-lane-running smart motorways that do not have automatic systems to detect stationary vehicles in a live lane. This should be done by showing a red ‘X’ above Lane 1, together with a message saying “For Emergency Use Only”. Where gantry signs are widely spaced, additional signage may be needed between them to reinforce the message that Lane 1 is for emergency use only. These measures should remain in operation until either the required detection systems are in place, or it is decided to revert to a traditional motorway and reinstate Lane 1 as a hard shoulder (possibly following a review of future traffic demand).
4.2 Even when automatic detection systems have been installed, continuous steel barriers adjacent to Lane 1 should be removed, except where they are protecting a structure or significant drop. This would at least give drivers a chance to get off the carriageway and out of their vehicles, giving them a greater chance of survival than being stuck in a live traffic lane.
4.3 Most drivers are unaware that, if they do use a refuge area, they should contact Highways England via the emergency telephone when they want to rejoin the motorway. They should not try to rejoin without assistance. This is clearly an area requiring an intensive information campaign.
4.4 Since the UK is no longer a member of the European Union, the Government might wish to consider removing the requirement for HGVs to have operational speed limiters set at 56mph while being driven in Britain. This could help reduce the propensity for these vehicles to travel too close together. Drivers would, of course, still be subject to the 60mph speed limit that applies to HGVs on motorways and dual carriageways.