Scrapping the hard shoulder on busy motorway is putting lives at risk, the RAC warns today.
Although the first smart motorway came into force over 10 years ago, many drivers do not encounter them on a regular basis, and feel in the dark about the potentially life-saving “safe haven” provided by emergency refuge areas (ERAs).
Increasingly, the hard shoulder on such highways is used as a running lane for traffic, either consistently or just during the most congested times of day.
The RAC surveyed 2,000 drivers and discovered that only 1.5% of respondents have ever used an emergency refuge area.
If you’re not familiar with emergency refuge areas, they’re similar to laybys and are located on stretches where the hard shoulder is sometimes open as a live lane on smart motorways.
They’re only meant to be used in an emergency – something 98% of motorists realise, according to the research.
Also among the disturbing findings, it was discovered that only one respondent (from the overall 1.5% who had actually used an ERA) knew they needed to contact Highways England to help them back onto the motorway, if the hard shoulder was operating as a running lane.
The report highlights ‘considerable confusion’ about how to use emergency refuge areas, with 64 per cent unsure about what to do after stopping and 65 per cent unclear about how to rejoin the road.
The introduction of smart motorways has been linked to the death of a woman in a car that ran out of fuel. Laura Cooper was a back seat passenger in the vehicle which was struck by an HGV after it came to a halt on an unlit section of the M25 that did not have a hard shoulder.
The 34-year-old suffered serious injuries and died in hospital four days after the late-night collision near Waltham Abbey in Essex in March last year.
The HGV driver will face a trial later this year on charges of dangerous driving and driving while under the influence of drink or drugs.
RAC chief engineer David Bizley says existing sinage for emergency refuge areas is clear, but will be further improved to help those who aren’t aware of them, purely because of where they live.
The RAC has been working closely with Highways England and is backing work to improve the motoring public’s understanding of ERAs and how to use them.