Smart thinking could improve driver safety perception of Britain’s Smart Motorways
Smart Motorways were first introduced in 2006 to address increasing congestion and since then have been proven to improve journey time reliability and prevent fatalities.
Despite the Government’s Road Investment Strategy championing Smart Motorways with a £3 billion investment to add an additional 240 miles of capacity, drivers still perceive smart motorways as unsafe.
With Highways England demonstrating a 50 percent reduction in personal injury accidents, zero fatalities and fewer serious injuries from its first Smart Motorway, the expectation would be that they are considered the safest option. Yet figures released by the AA in 2016—ten years after the introduction of the first Smart Motorway on the M42—showed eight out of ten drivers believed Smart Motorways were more dangerous than traditional motorways. And further research identified one key reason as to why.
Shouldering the loss
Despite the use of intelligence-led technology providing drivers with vital information about disruption to their journey through variable message signs and variable speed limits, drivers remain focused on the loss of the hard shoulder.
Many feared breaking down in live running lanes with the danger of being hit from behind, with AA President Edward King OBE saying in 2016: “Breaking down in a live running lane with trucks thundering up behind you is every driver’s worst nightmare. The official advice is to dial 999 which just shows how dangerous the situation can be.”
Whilst the loss of the hard shoulder to increase lane capacity seems to be recognised by drivers, Emergency Refuge Areas (ERAs) have not been understood in equal measure. Introduced as a replacement for the hard shoulder to offer a safe space for broken down vehicles or drivers involved in a collision, the ERAs are emergency laybys situated no more than 1.6 miles apart. According to figures released by Highways England this means that a vehicle travelling at 60mph is never more than 75 seconds away from an ERA.
Despite the frequency of them, a survey by the RAC in 2017 showed that 52 percent of respondents did not know what an ERA was and 64 percent did not know what to do once stopped.
Additional figures released by the AA the same year said only 32 percent would be happy to drive a quarter of a mile to an ERA whilst a further 23 percent would only drive up to half a mile—less than one third of the distance at which ERAs are currently spaced.
Driving awareness up
To improve driver confidence in the safety of Smart Motorways, the use, location and visibility of ERAs needs to be improved through driver education. The recent change in law to allow learner drivers onto the motorway could provide an opportunity to educate the new generation of motorists – but only if they volunteer. And what about those who already have their full licence?
Educating drivers through awareness campaigns, similar to those focusing on the “red cross” signs above lane closures, would be beneficial. In February this year, Highway England embarked on a specific campaign regarding awareness of the “red cross” sign which is displayed above motorway lanes to indicate closures. This involved radio adverts which coincided with peak travel times, producing YouTube videos and displaying posters in motorway service stations to reach its target audience.
However, to date, there does not appear to have been such an awareness campaign surrounding ERAs. Aside from messages on the Government website and generic publicity, there has not been a dedicated focus on ensuring more drivers are aware of the emergency laybys which suggests there is an opportunity to deliver a concentrated message.
Aside from driver education, Highways England has begun to introduce practical improvements by painting ERAs orange on new projects to “highlight” the zone to passing motorists and these are currently being trialled. These are beneficial first steps, but whether they are successful in raising awareness amongst drivers remains to be seen.
By helping to improve awareness of ERAs, this would help to improve driver understanding and subsequently driver confidence so that in years to come the perception of Smart Motorway safety reflects the reality.