The RAC and AA have voiced ‘severe’ and ‘significant’ reservations’ about the safety of new all-lane running schemes which will turn the hard shoulder into a permanent live traffic lane on many sections of England’s busiest stretches of motorway.
Eight miles of the M25 between junctions 23 and 25 became England’s first ‘Smart’ section of motorway with traffic running permanently on the hard shoulder on Monday April 14th
The scheme is one of 10 smart motorway all-lane running schemes planned by the Highways Agency to increase capacity and reduce congestion.
Another version of the Smart Motorway scheme known as Dynamic Hard Shoulder Running is in operation on sections of the M42, M1, M6 and M5 where the hard shoulder is temporarily used as a running lane during busy periods.
Under the new all-lane running schemes, however, the hard shoulder would be permanently used as a running lane and only closed to traffic via overhead and verge mounted signs in the event of an incident.
The RAC say its main safety concern for traffic using the hard shoulder permanently centres around the fact that emergency refuge areas will be further apart in sections of these schemes (up to 2.5km apart) than the Hard Shoulder Running ones (500-800m apart).
“This means motorists who break down on an all-lane running stretch will often find it impossible to reach an emergency refuge area and, therefore, have to stay in a live running lane until it is closed to traffic by the Highways Agency” said an RAC spokesman.
“Despite extensive CCTV coverage, the RAC believes this will inevitably lead to lives being put at risk and has been highlighting concerns for some months.”
RAC technical director David Bizley said: “The RAC has raised concerns with the Highways Agency about the added risk arising from increased distance between emergency refuge areas, and we are disappointed so far at the absence of action to address them.
“Dynamic hard shoulder running has proved to be very successful in terms of reducing congestion at peak periods and has a good safety record.
“So far, these sections of motorway have proven to be significantly safer than a conventional three-lane motorway with a hard shoulder.
“But we believe the greater distance between emergency refuge areas creates an unnecessary risk to the safety of any motorist breaking down in lane one on an all-lane running section.”
Eighty-four per cent of drivers surveyed by the RAC felt that the hard shoulder was important in breakdown and accident situations and 82pc said they would feel ‘very concerned’ if they broke down in lane one – formerly the hard shoulder – of a four-lane/all-lane running section of motorway.
Nearly half of people surveyed (46pc) were in favour of the introduction of permanent all-running lane sections on our motorways to increase capacity in congested areas.
But 61pc altered their views when they were informed that risk assessments showed they would be at greater risk of being killed or injured in a breakdown situation.
The RAC wants motorists to be fully aware of the major differences between the current Smart Motorway Hard Shoulder Running schemes on the M42, M1 and M6 and Smart Motorways: All-Lane Running.
The AA say the ‘all-lane running’ motorway should be treated with caution by drivers who are urged to stick to speed limits and follow breakdown advice to the letter.
But while it welcomes the congestion-busting aspects of the scheme the AA has significant reservations, because permanent hard shoulder removal means that breakdowns and other emergencies could take place in a live traffic lane rather than the hard shoulder.
Paul Watters, AA head of roads policy, says:
“Motorways are our safest roads and that is how we want it to stay. New ‘Smart’ motorways depend on drivers complying with the rules of the road and safety advice.
“Safety also depends on a rapid response to incidents on the part of the road operator and technology,
“At least the drivers trapped by regular chronic congestion on the M25 may breathe a sigh of relief but those unfortunate enough to be stopped in lane one may take a sharp intake of breath on occasions.”
Night-time accident reductions dimmed by council street light switch-offs
Night-time accidents in bad weather on 30 mph urban roads have been slashed by 15.6 per cent over the past five years. But, where street lights have been switched off or are not present, the fall is just 2.0pc, AA research reveals.
Official statistics show that, on darkened 40 mph built-up roads, accidents in the wet, snow or ice are down 21.8pc where there is lighting, but only by 5.2pc where there is not.
Overall, from 2007 to 2012, a 19.6pc reduction in road accidents along town and city roads where street lights were on shrank to 8.8pc where drivers, cyclists, bikers and pedestrians travelled in darkness.
This spring, Essex is the latest county council to black out roads for at least part of the night, switching off 77pc of its street lights. Lancashire is considering a similar move.
Roads that are safe when lit can become unsafe with the lights switched off, but that is only shown when drivers, cyclists, bikers and pedestrians start to get hurt and killed
AA President Edmund King says: “Worse accident rates on roads with street lights turned off or not present is an insidious threat that has crept in literally under the cover of darkness.
“Many local authorities based their risk assessment on police accident profiles for the affected roads. “This had two huge drawbacks.
“Firstly and fundamentally, roads that are safe when lit can become unsafe with the lights switched off, but that is only shown when drivers, cyclists, bikers and pedestrians start to get hurt and killed.
“Some local authorities have changed their minds after casualties – Powys in 2009 and the scheme pioneers Buckinghamshire in 2012 – but why did people have to become street light victims to prove the point?
“Secondly, with an extra casualty here and there, it is difficult to spot a creeping overall trend that might suggest something is dangerously wrong with a blackout.
“The AA’s analysis of reported accidents since 2007 shows that the faster the road and the worse the weather, the much higher the threat of accidents on urban roads that were previously lit through the night.
“Why? Because lighting illuminates potential hazards and gives road users a greater chance of avoiding them.”
An AA spokesman said: “It is distinctly possible that the accident and casualty rates would have been even worse had some councils not taken advantage of PFI funding to invest in low-energy lighting technology.
“Without more switched-on thinking, a 70pc street-light blackout in Essex and other councils will certainly cut costs and save CO2 – but it will be paid for in lives and injuries.”
(Sources: RAC and AA press releases)