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Smart motorway lay-bys labelled 'death zones' by unimpressed drivers

Published 26/09/2016

Traffic uses the hard shoulder of the M42 near Solihull during busy times
Traffic uses the hard shoulder of the M42 near Solihull during busy times

Drivers have described emergency lay-bys on smart motorways as "death zones" and "desperate unreachable havens".

Highways England guidance is for stopping places to be no more than 2.5 kilometres (1.6 miles) apart on motorways where the hard shoulder can be converted into an extra traffic lane during busy periods.

But the AA said drivers have made it "abundantly clear" that they believe this is insufficient to avoid broken down vehicles being forced to stop in live running lines, putting them at risk of being hit from behind.

Asked by the motoring organisation to give the lay-bys an alternative name, the responses by drivers included "death zones", "foolish planners' promised land", "good luck breaking down beside this space" and "desperate unreachable havens".

AA president Edmund King said: "O ur members came up with some scary names for the emergency refuge areas, which indicates just how worried they are.

"If drivers can see the next lay-by, they are much more likely to make it to the relative safety of that area even if their car has a puncture or is overheating.

"If they can't see the lay-by, they often panic and stop in a live running lane. If more lay-bys are designed at the planning stage it will be less expensive and safer.

"It is time for the Government to go back to the drawing board and design a scheme acceptable to drivers."

According to Highways England, emergency refuge areas are typically in place every two kilometres on smart motorways, meaning motorists driving at 60 miles per hour pass one around every 90 seconds.

Officials have been keen to press ahead with smart motorway projects, which are already in operation on sections of the M42, M1, M6, M4 and M5.

Earlier this month Transport Secretary Chris Grayling gave the green light for the hard shoulder to be permanently used as a traffic lane on a 32-mile stretch of the M4 from Hayes, west London, to Theale, Berkshire.

Earlier this year MPs on the Commons Transport Select Committee held an inquiry which concluded that such schemes - known as all lane running - are too dangerous and have not been properly considered.

An AA survey of more than 20,000 motorists found that 79% think the loss of hard shoulders has made motorways less safe.

Mr King believes there should be at least twice as many lay-bys included in the design of smart motorways.

He said: " Whilst we support measures to improve motorway capacity, we do not think that safety should be compromised.

"We do not accept that the current criteria of emergency refuge areas is safe.

"Breaking down in a live running lane with trucks thundering up behind you is every driver's worst nightmare. The official advice is to dial 999, which just shows how dangerous the situation can be."

A Department for Transport spokesman said: "We have some of the safest motorways in the world and are always looking at ways to make them safer.

"In the first year on the M25 all-lane running has tackled congestion, cut collision rates by nearly a fifth and reduced casualties by 21 per cent - showing they are at least as safe as an ordinary motorway."

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