The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS) and the AA have raised safety concerns about Government plans to permanently open more than 100 miles of hard shoulder on Britain’s motorways in an attempt to reduce congestion, according to the Telegraph.
Hard Shoulder Running (HSR) was trialled as long ago as 2006 on the M42. The big advantage of HSR is that the capacity of the UK’s motorways can be increased at a stroke, without substantial landtake or widening programmes. This is against a background of a forecast 30% increase in traffic levels between 2003 and 2025.
A 1998 White Paper ‘A New Deal for Transport’ concluded that the road network is largely complete and new road building fails to reduce congestion, and instead the management of existing roads to improve traffic flow should be prioritised.
With the UK’s motorway lanes designed to carry between 1100 and 1900 vehicles per hour depending on rural or urban locations, there is an obvious way of getting more traffic along a congested motorway – to use the hard shoulder.
However, the hard shoulder was originally designed as an emergency refuge for broken down vehicles and HSR removes this option unless extra refuge areas are built to the outside of the hard shoulder. It also offers an access to the emergency services to breakdowns and accidents. Once again, HSR would make it much more difficult to reach incidents on the carriageway.
Nevertheless, the Highways Agency believes that the hard shoulder can be turned into a permanent lane without putting drivers at risk, and plan to convert eight locations including stretches of the M25, M1, M60, M62, M3 and M6 to HSR.
Despite concerns about broken down vehicles, the Highways Agency plans to double the distance between refuges, which are currently about 1,000 metres apart and says it can monitor the motorway by CCTV, enabling it to intervene swiftly by closing down a blocked lane and redirecting traffic until the broken-down vehicle can be recovered. Presumably if the entire carriageway is blocked, traffic will be diverted off the motorway at the previous exit.
Another change which is under scrutiny is the proposed removal of the majority of overhead gantries which inform drivers of variable speed limits. In their place will be new signs, which only cover the new nearside lane.
Commenting on the proposals, the AA said: “Drivers who have endured hours of being stuck in traffic jams may breathe a sigh of relief, but that will soon turn to fear if they break down in the middle of the night and have no hard shoulder to retreat to.
“The plans are being pushed through with only scant consultation. Solving congestion on the cheap poses real road safety risks. While active traffic management worked well and was popular with drivers, this idea is a huge gamble.”
Robert Gifford, executive director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, said: “I think that the new specification could be very misleading to motorists. The current gantries extend across all four lanes. It is very clear to a driver in the outside lane that a speed limit applies to him or her.
“The new proposal for a pole extending over just the hard shoulder could all too easily lead drivers in the other lanes to think that the speed limit only applies to that lane and not across the entire carriageway.”
A spokesman for the Highways Agency said: “Through experience of operating the M42 and M6 schemes, we have produced proposals where the hard shoulder is converted to a running lane on a permanent basis and less infrastructure is needed on the existing route of future managed motorway schemes.
“We are working with road user organisations to develop the detail for these proposals. We are confident that once these proposals are fully developed they will provide the additional capacity required, without compromising overall safety.”
The main argument in favour is that by reducing congestion, vehicles are further apart and accidents are reduced. The downside is that broken down vehicles are far more at risk, and personally having had a car written off when stopped on a dual carriageway without a hard shoulder (despite attempts to get the vehicle as far off the lane as possible) by a woman driving whilst fiddling with her mobile phone, I’m extremely sceptical about safety issues. It only takes one vehicle following a truck too close to be completely blindsided to the obstruction ahead. Collisions on the hard shoulder on a fast-moving motorway aren’t exactly rare, so how much more dangerous is abandoning a vehicle in the lane itself? Congestion-related accidents are likely to be relatively slow-moving affairs. Remove the congestion and even with speed management in place, the collision speed with a stationary vehicle is likely to be much higher, with all that says for likely injuries to the occupants of the moving vehicle even if the occupants of the stopped vehicle can get to safety.
I’m also appalled at the proposal to remove the gantry signs. Considering the investment, time and effort that has gone into installing the long overdue and much-improved gantry signs covering all three lanes that provide real and useful information for all drivers, the proposal to remove them is one step forward, two back.
One of the immutable laws of traffic planning seem to be that if you provide a free-flowing road, people will find reasons to use it, until the benefit of using that particular route fades as the journey time increases. In this respect, widening the motorways by using HSR is no different to widening them in the first place. The chances are that any ‘fix’ in terms of improved traffic flow will be very temporary before the congestion is back, this time without the breakdown lane.