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Transport Focus has recently published the results of research into what road users think about smart motorways. A smart motorway uses technology, controlled from a regional control centre, to actively manage the flow of traffic. The hard shoulder of a smart motorway is opened up to traffic, either permanently or temporarily, to increase the capacity of the road and therefore helping the traffic to flow freely.
The research was carried out by conducting interviews with road users in Birmingham, Leeds and London. Transport Focus also asked road users to record video diaries of their journeys using smart motorways. The research involved people who used the motorways for leisure and business trips, professional drivers, lorry drivers, motorcyclists and disabled drivers and passengers. Transport Focus also conducted interviews with a range of organisations including the FTA, the AA and the National Police Chiefs’ Council.
The research found that people were generally unsure about the concept of smart motorways, although awareness was higher with frequent motorway users, such as lorry drivers. Drivers also wanted more information on whether the speed limits are mandatory or advisory and what to do if your break down where there is no hard shoulder.
Another key finding was that road users were not confident in the accuracy and timeliness of variable message signs, for example where signs show ‘incident ahead’ or ‘debris in road’ that they never see. Drivers often thought that the variable speed limits were not always set correctly, a common complaint being that there did not appear to be any reason to reduce the speed and on some motorways the signs always displayed the same speed limit, regardless of traffic conditions. This raises doubts as to whether the roads are being managed properly in real-time.
Following the outcome of the research, Transport Focus recommended Highways England to:
• Seek to further increase road user knowledge and understanding about what smart motorways are and how they work, what they require drivers to do and what to do if a driver breaks down on a smart motorway with no hard shoulder. This could be done by including information on smart motorways in theory and practical driving test training and provide information through vehicle tax, insurance and driving licence forms.
• Ensure that speed limits are regarded by road users as appropriate to the traffic conditions, in particular guard against reducing speed unnecessarily to minimise the perception that speed limits are causing congestions rather than reducing it.
• Make it clear to road users when the hard shoulder should and should not be used, with consideration given to a green arrow appearing above the lane, as well as a red cross.
• Reassure road users that all-lane running motorways are safe, even if you break down, and that any risks associated with not having a hard shoulder will continue to be mitigated and, subject to the results of the pilot scheme, roll out the orange surface and new signage to emergency refuge areas as quickly as possible to increase drivers’ awareness of them and their purpose.
Please call our Regulatory team if you would like any further information or advice on 01254 828300.