Findings from 2021's comprehensive study of UK drivers' views

Smart motorways and driver safety


Changes to the UK’s motorway network over recent years are causing increasing levels of disquiet among Britain’s drivers, the 2021 Report on Motoring has found.

Specifically, the introduction of ‘all lane running’ smart motorways – which sees the hard shoulder permanently converted into a running lane – has prompted a dramatic rise in safety concerns, to the extent that a clear majority of drivers now believe this policy should be reversed.

But campaigners have highlighted the potential dangers of motorways which have no hard shoulder for vehicles which break down or which are involved in collisions. In 2020, the Department for Transport announced a £700m safety plan following reports that 44 people had died on smart motorways since 2016. Work is continuing on new all lane running projects on the M1, M6 and M4 – but the Government clearly faces a significant challenge to convince drivers that such motorways are fit for purpose and safe to use.

What is all lane running?

All lane running motorways, which feature refuge areas no further than 1.6 miles (2.5km) apart with variable speed limits, speed cameras and variable message signs, are found across England on sections of the M25 as well as on the M3, M5, M6 and on stretches of the M1 with several other schemes currently under construction.

Like other forms of smart motorway, these roads have been designed to increase capacity and reduce congestion on busy parts of the network without the need to build extra lanes, which in turn reduces time and cost compared to traditional widening. Find out more about smart motorways.

A growing concern

This year’s Report indicates a sharp increase in safety concerns about smart motorways: 24% of drivers say this is one of their top motoring concerns, up from 16% in 2020 when this was first listed as an option. Smart motorway safety is a particular worry for older drivers: in the over-65 age group, 44% cite this as a top concern this year.

When looking at all lane running smart motorways specifically, most drivers (58%) say they have driven on a smart motorway of this type. But worryingly more than half of drivers of all ages (54%) who have experience of using them say they feel unsafe, with only 43% saying they feel safe.

The Report also asked drivers who had not driven on an all lane running stretch of road for their views on using a motorway that had no hard shoulder and with refuge points situated up to 1.6 miles apart: again, a majority (54%) said they thought they would feel unsafe based on the description given.

Fears over smart motorway safety correlate strongly with age. Three-quarters (76%) of drivers aged over 65 who have driven on an all lane running stretch of motorway say it made them feel unsafe. Indeed, most of this group (40% of the total) said they felt ‘very unsafe’. Among drivers aged between 45 and 54, nearly two-thirds (64%) felt unsafe on all lane running smart motorways, with the proportion falling to 39% of those aged 25 to 44 and to just 25% of the under-25s.

These findings are echoed among motorists who have not yet driven on all lane running smart motorways: 76% of over-65s say they think the concept is unsafe compared with just 23% of under-25s. These stark age differences could reflect the fact that older drivers are generally more risk-averse – or perhaps that they are more likely to have experienced a motorway breakdown or collision in their lives, and therefore recognise the potential safety benefits of having a hard shoulder.

Time for a rethink?

Most drivers believe that all lane running smart motorways increase the dangers faced by motorists who break down in a live lane: 84% think that safety is compromised by the removal of the hard shoulder, up from 67% when drivers were last asked in 2019, while 64% say that the distance between refuge areas is typically too great, up from 55% in 2019. This year’s figures clearly show a hardening of opinion on this type of smart motorway.

Meanwhile, 79% are worried that if they break down, they will be unable to reach an emergency refuge area. And, despite Highways England’s ‘Go Left’ campaign introduced in 2021, less than half of drivers (45%) say they know what to do in the event of breaking down in a live lane. 

Aside from the safety aspect of mechanical failure on all lane running motorways, 85% of drivers believe that a vehicle that breaks down in a live lane will lead to an increase in congestion.

Drivers lack confidence in the authorities’ ability to respond to live-lane breakdowns or incidents. Just 30% of motorists say they trust Highways England’s abilities to detect a stationary vehicle in a running lane and react accordingly, while only 54% think that the majority of drivers obey red ‘lane closed’ signs which are used to keep traffic out of lanes where a breakdown or other incident has occurred, down from 60% in 2019.

Separate RAC research carried out in 2019 revealed that a nearly a quarter (23%) of drivers had admitted to ignoring the red lane closed sign and although some enforcement is now taking place, full enforcement on the all lane running network is unlikely until 2022.

Overall, most drivers (63%) do not believe that the various measures being implemented by Highways England to compensate for the removal of the hard shoulder are adequate. These include variable speed limits in response to incidents or to control traffic flow, lane-closed signs, and technology to detect slowing or stationary vehicles.

Given these serious misgivings, therefore, it is hardly surprising that a clear majority of drivers (62%) think that all lane running schemes should be scrapped entirely and the hard shoulder reinstated, while retaining the technology that has already been installed to manage traffic flows and detect breakdowns – a sentiment shared by drivers of all ages.

Only a quarter of drivers (24%) support the continuation of current government policy, which is to stick with four lanes and no hard shoulder, but with an increase in the number of refuge areas and extra technology to detect stationary vehicles – as well cameras to catch motorists who ignore lane-closed signs. While there is greater support for scrapping all lane running across all age groups, it is highest among the over-65s (78%).

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