Written evidence submitted by GEM Motoring Assist
(Guild of Experienced Motorists) (RSM0086)

 

GEM Motoring Assist was formed as the Company of Veteran Motorists, a road safety members’ association, in 1932. Established as the premium road safety association in the UK, a breakdown recovery service was introduced in 1978 as a benefit for members. Today the organisation is one of the premier breakdown providers in the country, while retaining both its club feel and road safety ethos.

 

In 1932, our founders set us a very clear mission to help keep everyone safe on the roads. By encouraging members to set an example to others by driving with care, courtesy and concentration, they felt they could reduce the growing numbers of people killed or seriously injured on the roads. This founding mission remains at the heart of everything we do.

 

As an organisation we are members of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), Road Safety GB and the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS). We are strategic partners of both Highways England and their Driving for Better Business campaign, recently contributing to the development of the Highways England led Communicating Breakdown Advice best practice guidance.

Our Position on Smart Motorways

As a membership association with c55,000 members, we have often been critical of the roll out of smart motorways across England. Our members have been raising their concerns for a number of years, through surveys and also through writing in our members’ magazine Good Motoring. Indeed, in our 2018 Members’ Survey, 64% of respondents stated that they had concerns about the safety of smart motorways with 50% stating that breaking down without access to the hard shoulder was their main concern. 54% of members stated that they felt there need to be more space for refuge areas with 40% saying that there needed to be greater publicity around smart motorways, how to drive on them and what to do in emergencies.

 

These results and concerns for the safety of those recovery operators working on the network, led us to adopt the position that the roll-out of smart motorways should be halted across the country. For existing smart motorways, we stated that we wanted to see the 2016 Transport Select Committee recommendations being fully implemented, particularly regarding distances between refuge areas. We therefore welcomed the Secretary of State’s review into the safety of smart motorways in 2019. The resulting action plan was, however, disappointing in its scope although we do welcome the removal of dynamic hard shoulders from those sections of the network where they operate (although these need to revert to proper hard shoulders and not become All-Lane Running sections).

Submission to the Inquiry

Following the Committee’s call for evidence on the roll-out and safety of smart motorways, we conducted a survey of GEM members. Based on the questions being asked by the Committee, the survey was sent to all members who had signed up to receive our quarterly e-mail newsletter and took place between 17 March 2021 and 2 April 2021. 822 members responded to the survey during the two-week period it was open, 91.6% of whom have driven on a smart motorway regularly. 56% reported that they felt confident using smart motorways.

 

Do You Think Smart Motorways are Safe?

We asked our members if they thought smart motorways are safe and gave them four options to choose from:

 

a) Yes, smart motorways are adequately safe;

b) Improvement is needed to make them safe;

c) No, they are not safe and I don’t think they ever will be; and

d) I don’t know.

 

In addition, we offered the ability for respondents to qualify their answer if they wished. The overwhelming majority of respondents (78.75%) answered C – smart motorways are not safe and never will be. Only 2% of respondents stated that smart motorways are adequately safe.

 

The main theme of the free text answers is that having a continuous hard shoulder is a fundamental element of motorway safety. The risk of a vehicle breaking down in a live lane and not being able to reach an emergency area is too great for any perceived benefit in reduced congestion or shorter journeys. Concern was also expressed regarding the distances between emergency areas, together with their size and ability to cater for more than one vehicle, particularly if the area is already in use by an HGV or similar. 

 

One respondent, who identifies himself as a former Roads Policing Officer and Forensic Collision Investigator stated: “I am fully aware in a matter of less than a second how an RTC (Road Traffic Collision) can occur or a fault with a vehicle can develop leaving it stranded in any lane and a potentially fatal danger to the vehicle occupants and other motorists. Whoever thought up the concept (of smart motorways) has, it seems, no experience of reality or is ignorant of the views of practitioners such as Police Officers, Highways Agency Traffic Officers, other emergency services etc…”

 

Another respondent stated: “You cannot ever safely combine standing broken down traffic with a lane of traffic fully entitled to travel at 70 mph, where the only hope of… avoiding a fatal collision is to move into the path of another three lanes of traffic also expecting to travel uneventfully at 70 mph. It is inherently unsafe to leave people in a situation where there is nowhere safe for them to aim for with a breaking down vehicle – it will not have given the third of a mile or whatever notice of its breakdown and give the driver time to coast amongst 70mph traffic to a poorly sited refuge…”

 

The use of technology to maintain safety on smart motorways is doubted by members, particularly as even the fastest responses can take minutes to close lanes etc. Even with speed limits reduced and lanes closed, this is dependent on motorists following the rules: “The issue is invariably that the intermittent availability of the hard shoulder. Refuge points may not be reachable in all incidents. There may be delay in detecting/interpreting an incident on camera (whether monitored by a person or AI). Drivers may not be aware of the situation. A permanent hard shoulder is undoubtably the safest option. Anything else is play a risk balance game and, as we have seen, sometimes the mitigations don’t work. 

What Concerns You Regarding Safety on Smart Motorways?

When asked what concerns members about the safety of smart motorways, over 95% of respondents to the survey replied that breaking down and having no hard shoulder was their top concern. Next was the needing to locate and use an emergency area (69%) followed closely by other drivers not knowing how to drive on smart motorways (60%).

 

Again, the overriding concerns are that without a hard shoulder there is a real risk of a significant collision occurring if a vehicle breaks down. The reliance on technology to detect stationary vehicles, react to them and set appropriate speed limits/lane closures also causes concern for members. Indeed, they have given examples of speed limits being reduced on clear roads with no obvious reason and other motorists ignoring them, which in itself presents a danger to those who are following the speed limit. They are also fully aware that these systems are not operational on all smart motorways yet.

 

Do You Think “All Lane Running” is the Most Suitable Type of Smart Motorway to Roll Out?

When we asked members this question, 85% responded “No.” Only 6% answered “Yes” with the rest answering “I don’t know.” This gives a clear indication of the feeling members have regarding this type of road. In qualify their answers, members reiterated that the removal of the hard shoulder presented an unacceptable risk: “The whole point of motorways is that they are designed to keep the running lanes clear of broken-down vehicles by safely evacuating any broken-down vehicle with the minimum risk and time. The cost of a hard shoulder cannot be compared with the risks of deliberately keeping disabled vehicles in a transit lane a moment longer than is unavoidable.”

The Safe Systems Approach

The Safe Systems Approach is predicated on the understanding that people make mistakes and that things need to be put in place to mitigate those mistakes. In terms of road safety, we talk about five pillars: Safe Road Use; Safe Vehicles; Safe Speeds; Safe Roads and Roadsides; and Post Crash Response.

 

When one considers the design and implementation of smart motorways in England, it is clear that they should be done so with a view that people will make mistakes and that mitigation needs to be put in place to reduce these. The traditional motorway design, with a continuous hard shoulder, took this into account by giving space for people to use should they breakdown or become involved in an incident. The hard shoulder also facilitates the emergency services access to collisions when the running lanes are blocked, therefore helping to meet the requirements of a speedy post-crash response. Although the adoption of new technology on smart motorways, variable speed limits and the ability to close lanes may be said to mitigate for people’s mistakes, they still present an unacceptable risk when considered against the traditional motorway. Unfortunately, the public has been given the impression that, by removing the hard shoulder, safety has been put aside in favour of creating extra capacity at a reduced cost.

Conclusion 

Throughout our survey, members have stated that they feel the removal of hard shoulders from motorways presents an unacceptable level of risk, even when taking the use of monitoring technology into account. When asked about how to make existing smart motorways safer, 90% responded that there needs to be more space for emergency areas and also more frequent patrols by the police and Highways England to both deter offences and, potentially more importantly, be able to react quickly to incidents as they occur. 54% of members stated that they would seek an alternative route rather than drive on a smart motorway.

 

Pragmatically, we understand that those existing stretches of smart motorways already in existence are unlikely to be reverted to traditional motorways due to cost. Based upon the view of our members, however, we would urge that serious consideration be given to doing just that. We would also urge that no more motorways are considered for “upgrading” to smart motorways. If capacity is an issue then consideration should be given to widening roads with appropriate hard shoulders. Investment should be made in alternative travel, including railway capacity, to help reduce the environmental costs of motoring.

 

 

April 2021