Driving on Britain’s motorways in 2019: how to stay safe

Motorways in England

More and more motorways in England are being made into smart motorways to cope with increased traffic. But are they really safer than their predecessors?

What is a smart motorway?

A smart motorway is one where there is no hard shoulder, as it has been converted into a fourth lane – either permanently or temporarily.

Instead of the hard shoulder, there are emergency laybys which you can pull into if you break down. Overhead gantries display live information designed to keep drivers safe, such as lowered speed limits, or a red cross to say a lane is closed. The motorways are under constant CCTV surveillance, so that if someone does break down in a lane of traffic, the red cross can immediately be displayed to close that lane.

England has more than 100 miles of motorways like this, with 225 more miles planned.

What are the concerns?

Safety groups and motoring organisations continue to express concerns about smart motorways, and in December, the all-party parliamentary group for roadside rescue and recovery said the hard shoulder shouldn’t be permanently turned into an extra lane.

After all, the main point of the hard shoulder is so that drivers have somewhere to stop in an emergency. The refuge areas which are provided instead can be as far as a mile and a half apart. The hard shoulder also allows emergency vehicles to get to where they’re needed quickly and easily.

In 2017, there were 16 crashes involving stationary vehicles on smart motorways, compared with 29 crashes involving vehicles on the hard shoulder on the rest of England’s motorways, which are about 1,800 miles long.

However, Highways England, the government body responsible for motorways, says the technology means smart motorways are safe.

What to do if you break down on a smart motorway

Pull into an emergency refuge area if possible. If you can’t get to one, pull into the left lane and get as far left onto the verge and out of the traffic as you can. Switch on your hazard warning lights.

One of the essential motorway driving rules for broken down vehicles is that all occupants should exit the vehicle, through the left side doors if possible, and stand on the other side of the barrier as far from the traffic as possible. Walk back a little way in the opposite direction to the traffic, so if another car does crash into yours, you’re out of the way of flying debris. Then call the emergency services. If it is more dangerous to get out of the car, stay in it with your seatbelt on and call the police.

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