Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

De-engineering the motorways

When motorways were first introduced in the UK we learnt that the hard-shoulder (or breakdown lane) was only to be used in case of break-down or dire emergency. Whilst not absolutely safe, the hard-shoulder was a better place to stop than the main running lanes.

Now we are finding that increasingly the hard shoulders are to be used as additional running lanes – sometimes peak hours only, sometimes all the time. (Ref: BBC News Website 17 June 2013 M25 hard shoulders to become permanent driving lanes)

Is this because there has been a re-assessment of the safety case, or because we are cash strapped and this is the cheapest way to increase capacity?

The Highways Agency say that safety is to be maintained by providing “refuges” (as if you can control where you breakdown), monitoring the motorway with CCTV (so-called “managed motorways“) and providing motorists with regular (and frequent) information signals.

Whilst driving on congested motorways is undoubtedly tiring and inattention can cause rear-end shunts, driving on “managed motorways” is also very intensive as you are being bombarded with information from frequent signal gantries telling you which lane you can or can’t use and (dynamically) what speed you are allowed to do (the so-called variable speed limits).  Both signals are vital.

  • If someone breaks down in the near-side lane (what used to be the hard shoulder) in between refuges, the Highways Agency will close that lane by means of an overhead signal. If you are in that lane you need to pay attention to spot that signal and get yourself out into the next lane (or else run into the broken down vehicle). If you are not in that lane you still need to watch the signals over the old hard shoulder so that you are aware that vehicles may be pulling out on you – possibly with “no option assertiveness”.
  • The speed signals need to be watched because many of them also have a speed camera behind them and if the sign has changed to indicate a reduction in speed, you have to be down to that speed as you pass the sign.

When driving on congested motorways you currently need to keep a sharp eye on the traffic in front of you – if possible being in a position to see the brake lights of vehicles a few cars ahead of you, and a weather eye on your mirrors to check that the person behind is also attentive.

When driving on managed motorways you still have to do this, but in addition you need to watch the signals over all lanes for lane closures and for changes in the speed – and closely monitor your own speedometer.  This adds to information overload – possibly critically.

I also do not like the “mixed messages” about using the hard shoulder.  We have until recently been told that it is sacrosanct (breakdowns and dire emergencies only – little Johnny needing a pee not being an emergency). We have therefore had reasonable confidence that if stopped on the hard shoulder we are reasonably safe from a rear-end shunt.*

* Hard shoulders are not absolutely safe and there are unfortunately accidents every year where an inattentive driver drifts into the hard shoulder and “clips” a vehicle that has broken down.  This can have fatal consequences for passengers in the broken down vehicle. Current industry advice is that if you have to stop on the motorway you should normally leave your vehicle (via the near side door) and stand well clear of it whilst awaiting assistance.  Do not stand between your vehicle and the crash/crush barrier!

These changes mean that hard shoulders are no longer seen as sacrosanct – in fact people are more likely to get confused and those in a hurry may deliberately choose to try to “get away” with using the hard shoulder to access the next junction.

Hard shoulders should be for vehicles that break down and for those assisting them.

(I know major trunk roads have the same speed limit as motorways and do not have hard shoulders – but that is no reason to reduce safety on motorways.  Breaking down on roads such as the A12, A3, A38 or A66 can be very frightening and dangerous.)


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