More than two-thirds of drivers believe that removing the hard shoulder on smart motorways is putting motorists at risk.
The survey of drivers found that 68 per cent were worried about the safety implications of “all lane running” smart motorways where the hard shoulder had been turned into a normal lane, and half admitted they would not know what to do if they broke down on such a stretch.
Converting the hard shoulder into a fourth traffic lane was seen as a quick and easy way to increase road capacity but the move has proved controversial, with accusations that removing the hard shoulder has led to avoidable deaths.
Some road safety groups have called for the roll-out of smart motorways to be halted and the head of Highways England admitted in October that “dynamic” hard shoulders, which are open to traffic at certain times, were too confusing for drivers.
In the wake of his comments and campaigning from motorists’ organisations, the Government recently launched an urgent inquiry into the use of smart motorways.
The new findings, revealed in the annual RAC Report on Motoring, show high levels of concern over the use of smart motorways and some confusions.
Among those motorists who say they have driven on an ‘all lane running’ smart motorway, 72 per cent said they were worried about not being able to reach an emergency SOS area if they broke down and 59 per cent thought the distance between SOS areas – at up to 1.6 miles (2.5km) apart – is too great.
Smart motorways work by allowing traffic to run in the hard shoulder unless there is a breakdown or accident, at which point overhead signs indicate that the lane is closed.
The survey found that most people understood the system and thought other drivers obeyed the rules (62 per cent) but almost a fifth (18 per cent) thought other drivers illegally ignored the red X lane closed warnings.
It also found that while just over half of drivers were confident in the automated systems’ abilities to detect broken down vehicles and to display the correct information to drivers (54 and 53 per cent respectively), a fifth believed the systems could not be trusted to detect issues and a quarter didn’t trust the signs to be accurate.
RAC 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. Motorists strongly believe the permanent removal of the hard shoulder compromises safety and tell us that emergency SOS areas are located too far apart at intervals of up to 1.6 miles.
“We have consistently highlighted our concerns about this type of smart motorway to the Government, MPs and Highways England so we hope these findings add further support to our calls for action. This is particularly relevant now as the Secretary of State for Transport has committed to reviewing the safety data from smart motorways.
“We are calling on the Government to ensure the latest stopped vehicle detection technology is retrofitted on all sections of smart motorway as a matter of urgency and for more SOS areas to be built so drivers are never more than a mile away from one. We would also like to see these measures included in all smart motorway schemes that are currently being built or planned so we have a nationally consistent standard.
“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.
“It is imperative drivers have the confidence to know they will be protected from traffic in the event they suffer a breakdown in live lane on ‘all lane running’ motorway.”