The frequency of motorway refuge areas – dedicated lay-bys for broken down vehicles to use on motorways with no hard shoulder – will be increased, it has been announced.
Highways England, the Government-owned company responsible for running the country’s motorways and major A roads, will build future refuge areas every mile “where practicable”, instead of every 1.5 miles. It will also install more refuge areas in locations “with the highest levels of potential live lane stops.”
The decisions were made following a safety review by Highways England.
Smart motorways boost capacity by using the hard shoulder for traffic, meaning vehicles that suffer a breakdown or accident may have to stop in a live running lane if they cannot make it to a refuge area.
Sections of motorways such as the M25, M1, M4 and M6 have already been converted and another 480 smart motorway lane miles are planned.
Many drivers and motoring groups are unhappy with the perceived lack of lay-bys on these stretches of road, with some describing smart motorways as “death zones” and the refuge areas as “desperate unreachable havens” in a 2016 AA Questionnaire.
In a letter sent to the Transport Select Committee, Highways England chief executive Jim O’ Sullivan said all-lane running motorways deliver “comparable levels of safety to traditional motorways”, though a previous AA survey found 80 per cent of drivers felt them to be more dangerous than traditional motorways.
Further safety measures for smart motorways include a stopped vehicle detection system, due to be rolled out this year following trials on the M25. Highways England also said it had reduced “non-compliance with red-x signals” to around eight per cent, meaning a significant number of motorists are still driving in closed smart motorway lanes. This offence is likely to bring fines and penalty points in 2018.
On Friday, a family told Channel 4 News of the horror of being hit by a lorry at up to 60mph after breaking down on a section of the M6 which had no hard shoulder in preparation for becoming a smart motorway.
Duncan Montgomery, who was in the car with his wife and their three daughters, said: "Glass was smashed everywhere, the whole side of the van was halfway across the carriage.
"I got Rose (his daughter) and dragged her into the front driver's seat where she was throwing up blood."
The family escaped with minor injuries from the crash, which happened over the festive period in Cheshire.
AA president Edmund King described the increase in the number of lay-bys as 'victory for common sense'.
He said: "Improving capacity and easing congestion on our motorways is key for the economy, but not at the expense of safety.
'The gap between emergency refuge areas has been a major concern."