Smart motorways: most drivers want return of hard shoulder as new schemes scrapped

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Motorists back reverting to traditional road layout despite government claims it would be too disruptive and expensive

Seven in 10 drivers want the hard shoulder to be reinstated on the UK’s existing smart motorways, according to a new poll. 

Days after the government announced it was scrapping all new smart motorway projects, a survey of motorists found that the majority (69%) want existing sections of the controversial roads to revert to a traditional configuration. 

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Smart motorways turn the hard shoulder into a part-time or full-time live traffic lane, leaving drivers who get into difficulty to find an emergency refuge area or stop in a live lane. Technology is supposed to detect any stopped vehicles and display lane closed warnings but problems with the systems and the risks of a broken down being hit from behind are among the reasons the schemes have now been scrapped. 

After confirming that no new smart motorways would be built, the government insisted it would not convert existing sections back to traditional motorway. It said that reinstating the hard shoulder would be too disruptive and costly. Instead it intends to proceed with a £900 million project to install more emergency refuge areas and improve stopped vehicle detection. 

However, the RAC, which conducted the survey, said that anything less than the full reinstatement of hard shoulders would be seen as “a poor excuse which could lead to more lives being needlessly lost”.  

RAC road safety spokesman Simon Williams said: “While we’re pleased the government reached the same conclusion that many drivers already have by cancelling future smart motorway schemes which would have seen around dozens more miles of hard shoulder disappearing forever, as things stand, by the end of this year there will still be 250 miles of motorway in England without hard shoulders – that’s around 13% of the complete network.

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“Installing additional refuge areas and radar technology to help spot stricken vehicles is welcome and necessary, but for most drivers this doesn’t go far enough. Many felt they were dangerous from the outset and now it’s clear the government has totally lost faith in these types of road as well. Today, it remains the case that anyone unlucky enough to break down who can’t get to an emergency refuge area remains incredibly vulnerable where the hard shoulder has been taken out.

“We continue to believe that reinstating the hard shoulder on all stretches of road where they’ve been converted into a permanent fourth lane is the right thing to do.”

Williams said that drivers would be willing to tolerate the disruption of reintroducing the hard shoulder if it made roads safer but added that an alternative solution would be to convert all-lane running stretches into dynamic hard shoulder (DHR) schemes.

All-lane running was the government’s preferred type of smart motorway, where the hard shoulder was permanently converted to a live lane. On DHR routes the hard shoulder is used as a traffic lane during peak times but reverts to an emergency lane at other times, with lane closures managed by overhead signs. 

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Williams added: “Dynamic hard shoulder schemes, such as already exist on parts of the M42, M4 and M5, have a good safety record and the backing of as many as seven in 10 drivers according to our research. If the overhead red-X sign was illuminated whenever the hard shoulder was closed, this could also help make these roads even safer.

“Whatever action the Government decides to take, the status quo – where we still have hundreds of miles of motorway without hard shoulders simply isn’t sustainable.”

The AA has also called for the replacement of the hard shoulder on existing smart motorways. Its president, Edmund King, said that reinstating the hard shoulder would be a “relatively simple” task involving repainting solid white lines between lanes and permanently activating the red X above the lane on overhead gantries.

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