The UK’s independent transportation industry watchdog, Transport Focus, says Highways England (HE) should do more to increase drivers’ knowledge about how smart motorways work, helping them to understand what a red X means and what they should do if they break down.
The smart motorway concept first appeared on England’s motorways in 2006, and was deployed on the M42 near Birmingham Airport, which saw the first section of ‘active traffic management’, where technology was used to open and close the ‘dynamic hard shoulder’ and change speed limits to improve traffic flow.
Since then a number of other sections of smart motorway have been completed by either temporarily or permanently opening the hard shoulder to traffic, the installation of overhead message signs, and the introduction of regularly spaced emergency refuge areas (ERA). The technology is controlled from a regional traffic control center that monitors traffic carefully and can activate and change signs and speed limits to help keep vehicles flowing freely.
In its latest research, conducted by the independent market research agency Illuminas, Transport Focus found that when it came to motorways without a hard shoulder, safety was not at the forefront of drivers’ minds, and only came up when the subject was specifically explored. However, few drivers knew for sure what they should do if they were to break down where there is no hard shoulder. Following the release of the Getting to the heart of smart: road user experiences of smart motorways report, the watchdog is now calling on HE to:
Do more to help drivers understand what smart motorways are designed to achieve, and how their various features work for the benefit of road users;
Reassure road users that motorways with no hard shoulder are safe, even if they break down;
Roll out the new orange tarmac surface and new signage to ERAs as quickly as possible, if current trials are successful.
“What’s been missing until now is an understanding of how road users experience smart motorways. The message to Highways England is that many millions of drivers successfully use smart motorways, but there is more to do to improve their understanding of how they work, and what you should do if you break down,” explained Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus. “Road users tend to trust that ‘the authorities’ would not allow motorways without a hard shoulder if it was unsafe. Highways England must remain vigilant that their trust is not misplaced.”