The Metropolitan police today issued a safety alert over the removal of the “hard shoulder” on motorways.
Busy sections of the M25, M1 and M4 are among the routes converted to “all lane running” as a cheap fix to ease congestion and speed-up traffic.
But the Met, in a submission to an inquiry by the Commons transport committee, said this created a “significant risk” to motorists and their passengers – and to emergency rescuers – when vehicles break down in “live” lanes.
First-year results from the two M25 trial sites, which were introduced in 2014, suggest that converting the hard shoulder to a “normal” lane reduced collision rates by about 15 per cent and cut delays. The worst journeys between junctions 23 to 27 – between the M11 and A1(M) – took 25 minutes instead of 40 minutes.
There was a 50 per cent increase in the number of motorists killed or seriously injured between junctions five to seven – in the Kent-Surey section of the motorway – but a reduction of a similar amount between junctions 23 to 27. However these figures will not be “statistically significant” until they are collected for three years.
But the Met submission to the Commons transport committee states: “The type of collision that all agree will significantly increase, ie one resulting from a broken-down vehicle in a ‘live’ lane, is far more likely to result in serious injury or fatality than many of the collision types that are actually reduced.”
There will be almost 300 miles of “smart motorways” by 2020, including continuous routes linking London, Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham. A total of 30 schemes are planned over the next decade. All-lane running was first trialled on the M42 in the West Midlands in 2006.
Concerns were also expressed by the RAC and AA, which said research showed it was more than twice as risky for a vehicle to stop in a “live” lane than on the hard shoulder.
AA spokesman Paul Watters told the Standard: “It’s quite a sensible strategy on paper but it causes such a huge risk for the vehicle broken down in the dark.
“People will continue to break down. The second biggest item of break-downs is punctures. We are all for speeding-up traffic and utilising as much capacity as we can. We don’t want drivers to be stuck in queues. But in terms of safety we think it’s a bit of a gamble, and in terms of resilience it’s a bit of a gamble.”
Highways England data shows that less than half of the 5,000 drivers who broke down between junctions 23-27 were able to reach new safety lay-bys, known as an emergency refuge area. Many were wrongly occupied by foreign lorry drivers taking a comfort break.
Concerns also exist around the number of drivers – about eight per cent – who ignore the “Red X” lane closure signs activated in emergencies. More than 30,000 “encouragement letters” were sent to motorists in the West Midlands and fines are being considered as a way to increase compliance.
A Highways England spokesman said: “Our motorways are some of the safest in the world and the evidence shows collision and casualty rates on the M25 are down. All lane running on the M25 has also reduced congestion and led to more reliable journeys.
“As we gradually roll out these upgrades on other motorways we will continue to work closely with all the emergency services so we can ensure safety is maintained.”