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All-lane running on smart motorways: maintaining the trust of road users

Almost daily, drivers are hearing something in the media about safety on all-lane running smart motorways, that’s the ones without a hard shoulder. Highways England says the data shows that all-lane running is safe, but the questions keep coming. What are road users supposed to make of it all?

You can see from Transport Focus’s Strategic Roads User Survey that, overall, road users feel safe on Highways England’s roads – 94 per cent say very or fairly safe. But when we explore road users’ views about smart motorways, as we did recently in relation to the M4, not having a hard shoulder quickly emerges as an issue. In particular, road users are nervous about what happens if they had the misfortune to break down. Hard shoulders may not be safe places to be, but people simply feel they are safer with one – just in case.  That feeling doesn’t seem likely to go away easily.

So what should Highways England do? Transport Focus thinks three key things:

  • keep communicating what to do if you break down
  • keep communicating why obeying the red ‘X’ matters
  • set an early date to install automatic stopped vehicle detection on every all-lane running section.

Transport Focus sees the last point as crucial. Road users put a high degree of trust in ‘the authorities’ to look after them. Would road users be surprised to hear that automatic stopped vehicle detection isn’t already on every all-lane running section? I suspect they would. Highways England should make implementing it on all existing and new all-lane running sections the highest priority. It could then say, hand on heart, “if you break down, we’ll spot you fast, we’ll protect you fast, you’re safer without a hard shoulder”.

A final thought. In its recent letter to the Transport Select Committee, Highways England says the safety objective of any all-lane running scheme is to be at least as safe as the traditional motorway it replaces. Is that actually good enough? Shouldn’t the objective be improvement? And in the context of aspiring to zero death and serious injury by 2040, marked improvement?

I am pleased that Jim O’Sullivan, Highways England Chief Executive, has accepted an invitation to talk about this, and other aspects of road safety, at the Transport Focus Board meeting in Manchester on 20 November.

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