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

The M6 is one of the first motorways to have a ‘live’ hard shoulder with moving traffic (Picture iStock/Vision4ry-L4ngu4ge)

Our 2000 miles of motorway are changing to accommodate the predicted 60 per cent increase in traffic expected by 2040. And that’s posing drivers with a different challenge when it comes to staying safe.

‘Smart’ motorways don’t have a traditional hard shoulder. In 2017, official figures show there were 16 crashes involving stationary vehicles on our 400 miles of smart motorway. There were 29 crashes on the hard shoulder across the rest of England’s motorways.

The stats also show that there’s been an increase in crashes on unlit sections of motorway. Here we look at what drivers should do for improved road safety.

What is a smart motorway?

The idea of the smart motorway is to increase the amount of carriageway without the disruption and cost of widening existing roads. Highways England hopes to achieve this by using the hard shoulder as what’s known as a ‘live’ lane. This can either be on a permanent or temporary basis. Emergency laybys replace hard shoulders for conked-out cars. Signs on gantries display a speed limit to keep traffic moving as efficiently as possible. A red cross is shown when the lane is closed to cars. Currently our 400 miles of smart motorway is set to double by 2025.

Why are there safety fears about them?

Overhead gantries show when a lane is open to cars (Picture iStock/Jaroslaw-Kilian)

There have been some horrific accidents where cars have broken down in a live lane and then been crashed into by vehicles that haven’t realised they’re there. Safety experts have multiple concerns. Refuge areas can be a mile and a half apart. If a car suddenly conks out, drivers could be stopped in a live lane. And there’s a worry that foreign drivers, especially truckers, may not be aware of the changes to our motorways and keep driving in live lanes even when the red cross is being show.

What to do if you break down on a smart motorway?

If there’s no hard shoulder and you can’t make it to a refuge area, pull over to the left-hand lane. Stop as far to the left on the verge as you possibly can. Put your hazard warning lights on and Highways England’s advice is to leave the vehicle, if possible through the left-hand doors. Get all vehicle occupants out (leave any pets in the car) and where you can, stand on the other side of the barrier. Walk a short distance in the direction you’ve come from. That way, if your car is crashed into by another vehicle, you’re less likely to be hit by flying debris.

What if you can’t get out of your car?

There might be occasions where it’s not safe to get out of your car. Follow the advice above about pulling over. As soon as you come to a halt, keep your seatbelts on, dial 999 and ask for the police. CCTV constantly monitors smart motorways so Highways England should see you’re in trouble and close your lane to live traffic. It will then send traffic officers to help you.

Why driving on unlit motorways can be unsafe

Research by the University of Sheffield has proved that darkness or poor visibility can have a negative impact on road safety. The study also found that when drivers move from lit to unlit motorway sections, their driving performance decreases and it takes 20 minutes for them to adjust. Highways England figures from 2017 echo this. These show an 88 per cent rise since 2010 in casualties on roads where street lights weren’t being used. Roads lit during darkness saw casualties fall by 18.4 per cent over the same period.

How to drive safely on unlit motorways

Drivers need to take more care on motorways at night (Picture iStock/Apriori1)

First of all, make sure your windscreen is clean, particularly on the inside. One of the problems of driving in the dark is dazzling from other cars. If another car’s lights are blinding you, look slightly to the left. On a dark motorway, it’s important to drive within your and your car’s capabilities. Road safety experts say you should always be able to stop within the distance your headlights show to be clear.

Use the carriageway’s cats’ eyes too. White cats’ eyes separate the lanes; red cats’ eyes mark the edges of the road; and when there’s a slip road, the cats’ eyes turn to green.

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

  1. Eric Hayman May 16, 2019 8:30 am

    How our native language gets twisted. There is nothing smart about motorways without hard shoulders. At least two people have been killed after breaking down on motorwaysa without the commonsense hard shoulder: “An elderly man was killed on the M1 northbound between junction 30 for Barlborough and junction 31 for Aston on Friday.

    The 83-year-old’s white Volkswagen Crafter stopped in lane one before being hit by a red Ford KA, which was then hit by a coach.

    This comes after a woman died on September 9, 2018 when she got out of her broken-down car.

    According to Derbyshire Times, the accidents were both on a stretch of the motorway where there is no hard shoulder – known as an all lane running system.”

    They are CHEAP motorways. Yet we can “afford” HS2 – destroying hundreds of homes and farmland – but not extra lanes on motorways. Oh yes – and the destructive third runway at Heathrow, destroying a whole village for more polluting aircraft to add to London’s bad air.

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