Smart motorways: what will ongoing changes mean for drivers?

By 21st April 2021April 27th, 2021No Comments

Smart motorways continue to divide opinion amongst UK motorists. To some, motorways without a permanent hard shoulder are no different in concept to dual carriageways, and electronically-controlled variable speed limits are a much-needed technological advancement in the management of modern traffic levels. To others, the very thought of breaking down in a live lane is confirmation enough that smart motorways must be inherently dangerous.

In a recent poll carried out by IAM RoadSmart, 85% of respondents said that construction of further smart motorways should be halted until they are proven to be safer, and 81% said they felt less safe when travelling on smart motorways than they do on traditional motorways.

On Tuesday 20 April, Highways England announced its first-year progress report on its smart motorway action plan, which was launched as an attempt to address safety concerns alongside the ongoing rollout of smart motorways. Some of the key measures detailed in the report:

  • Radar technology that enables stopped-vehicle detection (SVD) will be installed on all existing all-lane-running schemes by the end of September 2022, six months earlier than previously committed
  • Every new smart motorway will have SVD technology in place when it opens
  • 1,000 additional signs to be installed across the existing network informing drivers of the nearest emergency refuge area
  • Upgraded cameras that automatically detect vehicles passing illegally under a Red X, also by the end of September 2022 across the existing smart motorway network
  • Emergency refuge areas have been coloured orange for easier recognition, and the design of future smart motorways will include more frequent emergency refuge areas
  • As part of a previous pledge to abolish Dynamic Hard Shoulder schemes by March 2025, several such stretches have now undergone their preliminary surveying

The crucial role of education

This latest update should help to allay the fears of those who have expressed concerns about the lack of refuge areas and the slow response to incidences of vehicles becoming stranded in live lanes. The measures also go some way towards improving enforcement of consiustent penalties for speeding or for infringements relating to ‘Red X’ signs.

However, the rollout of the proposed developments will take several years, and there is already an apparent lack of clarity over the correct usage of smart motorways, that may well continue until systems are consistent across the whole network.

Watch this video for advice on using smart motorways safely

Providing clarity to improve safety

Highways England has proposed changes to the Highway Code, to include information about driving on smart motorways. It has also run poster campaigns to inform drivers about observing the Red X, and a recent television and social media campaign advising drivers to ‘get left’ in the event of a breakdown. It remains unclear at this point how much impact these campaigns have had. Back in 2014, Highways England’s National Road User Survey found that almost a third of motorists did not understand the correct way to respond to a Red X sign. In 2019, the RAC carried out a survey in which 99% of respondents said they did understand that it meant the lane was closed; however, almost one in four also said they had ignored the signs with some saying they would only stop or change lanes upon seeing the hazard up ahead.

Harsher penalties for ignoring the Red X sign were announced in 2019, so it is important that all road users are made aware of this, and of the ongoing developments in the smart motorway network that will be rolled out over the next few years in accordance with the latest proposals. Most importantly, road users must understand the significance of the Red X from a safety point of view, and appreciate the important role played by the variable signage in managing traffic flow.

What can employers do to help?

Business drivers, especially those covering high mileages, are likely to spend a lot of time on the motorway network. As a fleet, HR or H&S manager, you can play a key role in ensuring that drivers are fully up-to-date with the latest developments through regular bulletins and publication of the latest road safety campaigns through your internal communication channels.

Our CHOICES online platform offers a really easy way to roll out these important communications, confirm that your drivers have read them, and also to assign them bite-size modules covering such essential topics, including memorable instructional videos like the one above. Get in touch to find out more about signing up your drivers.

Gary Bates

Author Gary Bates

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