62% of drivers have said they would like to see all-lane-running smart motorways scrapped and the hard shoulder reinstated, the RAC Report on Motoring 2021 has found.

While the motorists would still like to see the technology that manages traffic flow and monitors for breakdowns stay in place, there is a clear consensus in favour of abolishing smart motorways.

A busy motorway with traffic flowing in both directions

Only 24% of the 2,652 respondents have said they agreed with the government’s current policy, which is:

  • Sticking to four permanent running lanes, with no hard shoulder
  • Using technology to identify stationary vehicles
  • Deploying cameras to spot motorists who ignore closed-lane signs
  • Ensuring there are more emergency refuge areas in place

63% of drivers also believe the measures put in place fail to make up for the lack of the hard shoulder. 

These measures include:

  • Variable speed limits that alter based on traffic flow or incidents
  • Closed-lane signs
  • Emergency refuge areas every 1.6 miles
  • Technology spotting slow or stationary vehicles

However, while 21% were unsure about their suitability, only 15% considered them to be adequate.

Safety has also become an increasing concern when using smart motorways, with 24% of drivers thinking it’s a major worry of theirs, an increase from 16% in 2019. Only 43% of drivers who have driven on an all-lane stretch feel safe doing so, with 30% responding that they don’t feel very safe, while 24% said they feel ‘very unsafe’.

What to do in the event of a breakdown also plays on people’s minds, with 84% thinking the lack of the hard shoulder will compromise their safety.

Other fears include:

  • 63% of drivers believe the 1.6 mile distance between SOS areas is too great
  • 79% are concerned they wouldn’t reach an SOS area if they break down
  • 46% wouldn’t know what to do if they broke down on a live lane

RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: “Our research reveals the enormous strength of feeling among drivers of all ages about the safety of all-lane-running smart motorways. But while there’s support for scrapping these motorways across all age groups, it’s highest among those aged 45 and over, with 73% wanting to see the end of these schemes.”

“We’ve always had safety concerns about all-lane-running motorways and have raised these by giving evidence to two separate Transport Committee inquiries. While the Government published its 18-point action plan in 2020, the RAC has continued to push for new safety features to be introduced as quickly as possible. Although much of the plan is on track and the installation of crucial stopped vehicle detection technology is now due to be completed ahead of schedule, it seems the only thing that will truly satisfy most drivers is the re-instatement of the hard shoulder.”

“The Government is therefore faced with a difficult choice between continuing to roll out unpopular all-lane-running motorways very much against drivers’ wishes or reinstating the hard shoulder, effectively creating three-lane ‘controlled motorways’ which would have the benefit of improved safety features but with less overall capacity.”

“The RAC, however, believes there’s a third option worth considering which provides increased capacity without adversely compromising safety. Rather than simply scrapping dynamic hard shoulder schemes, which only open the hard shoulder to traffic at busy times of the day, these schemes could be made the new standard as they still offer somewhere to stop away from live traffic in the event of a breakdown during quieter times, while still accommodating more traffic at busy times. They have also demonstrated very good levels of safety. What’s more, all the technology that’s been installed for all-lane-running would continue to be of valuable use, making dynamic hard shoulder schemes even safer.”

“Arguably, all that would be needed is to repaint the sold white hard shoulder line and potentially some additional gantry signs. We would also like to see the ‘red X’ closed-lane symbol illuminated whenever the hard shoulder is not being used as a running lane alongside variable message signs indicating the hard shoulder is for emergency use only so drivers clearly know it’s not in use. That way there is no confusion and anyone who has to stop due to a breakdown or incident is likely to be better protected.”

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