Driving on Britain’s motorways in 2019: how to stay safe

The M6 is one of the first motorways to have a ‘live’ hard shoulder with moving traffic (Picture iStock/Vision4ry-L4ngu4ge)

Our 2000 miles of motorway are changing to accommodate the predicted 60 per cent increase in traffic expected by 2040. And that’s posing drivers with a different challenge when it comes to staying safe.

‘Smart’ motorways don’t have a traditional hard shoulder. In 2017, official figures show there were 16 crashes involving stationary vehicles on our 400 miles of smart motorway. There were 29 crashes on the hard shoulder across the rest of England’s motorways.

The stats also show that there’s been an increase in crashes on unlit sections of motorway. Here we look at what drivers should do for improved road safety.

What is a smart motorway?

The idea of the smart motorway is to increase the amount of carriageway without the disruption and cost of widening existing roads. Highways England hopes to achieve this by using the hard shoulder as what’s known as a ‘live’ lane. This can either be on a permanent or temporary basis. Emergency laybys replace hard shoulders for conked-out cars. Signs on gantries display a speed limit to keep traffic moving as efficiently as possible. A red cross is shown when the lane is closed to cars. Currently our 400 miles of smart motorway is set to double by 2025.

Why are there safety fears about them?

Overhead gantries show when a lane is open to cars (Picture iStock/Jaroslaw-Kilian)

There have been some horrific accidents where cars have broken down in a live lane and then been crashed into by vehicles that haven’t realised they’re there. Safety experts have multiple concerns. Refuge areas can be a mile and a half apart. If a car suddenly conks out, drivers could be stopped in a live lane. And there’s a worry that foreign drivers, especially truckers, may not be aware of the changes to our motorways and keep driving in live lanes even when the red cross is being show.

What to do if you break down on a smart motorway?

If there’s no hard shoulder and you can’t make it to a refuge area, pull over to the left-hand lane. Stop as far to the left on the verge as you possibly can. Put your hazard warning lights on and Highways England’s advice is to leave the vehicle, if possible through the left-hand doors. Get all vehicle occupants out (leave any pets in the car) and where you can, stand on the other side of the barrier. Walk a short distance in the direction you’ve come from. That way, if your car is crashed into by another vehicle, you’re less likely to be hit by flying debris.

What if you can’t get out of your car?

There might be occasions where it’s not safe to get out of your car. Follow the advice above about pulling over. As soon as you come to a halt, keep your seatbelts on, dial 999 and ask for the police. CCTV constantly monitors smart motorways so Highways England should see you’re in trouble and close your lane to live traffic. It will then send traffic officers to help you.

Why driving on unlit motorways can be unsafe

Research by the University of Sheffield has proved that darkness or poor visibility can have a negative impact on road safety. The study also found that when drivers move from lit to unlit motorway sections, their driving performance decreases and it takes 20 minutes for them to adjust. Highways England figures from 2017 echo this. These show an 88 per cent rise since 2010 in casualties on roads where street lights weren’t being used. Roads lit during darkness saw casualties fall by 18.4 per cent over the same period.

How to drive safely on unlit motorways

Drivers need to take more care on motorways at night (Picture iStock/Apriori1)

First of all, make sure your windscreen is clean, particularly on the inside. One of the problems of driving in the dark is dazzling from other cars. If another car’s lights are blinding you, look slightly to the left. On a dark motorway, it’s important to drive within your and your car’s capabilities. Road safety experts say you should always be able to stop within the distance your headlights show to be clear.

Use the carriageway’s cats’ eyes too. White cats’ eyes separate the lanes; red cats’ eyes mark the edges of the road; and when there’s a slip road, the cats’ eyes turn to green.

32 comments on “Driving on Britain’s motorways in 2019: how to stay safe

  1. Eric Hayman 16/05/2019 8:30 AM

    How our native language gets twisted. There is nothing smart about motorways without hard shoulders. At least two people have been killed after breaking down on motorwaysa without the commonsense hard shoulder: “An elderly man was killed on the M1 northbound between junction 30 for Barlborough and junction 31 for Aston on Friday.

    The 83-year-old’s white Volkswagen Crafter stopped in lane one before being hit by a red Ford KA, which was then hit by a coach.

    This comes after a woman died on September 9, 2018 when she got out of her broken-down car.

    According to Derbyshire Times, the accidents were both on a stretch of the motorway where there is no hard shoulder – known as an all lane running system.”

    They are CHEAP motorways. Yet we can “afford” HS2 – destroying hundreds of homes and farmland – but not extra lanes on motorways. Oh yes – and the destructive third runway at Heathrow, destroying a whole village for more polluting aircraft to add to London’s bad air.

  2. Our Arts Magazine 08/07/2019 8:05 PM

    There is NO way on this planet that I would leave my two dogs alone in a car on a live lane! I do not care what the law is, it ain’t happening!!

  3. Michael Pearson 08/07/2019 8:07 PM

    Good article, not “Smart ” at all seems it’s all about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, just down to your luck!! No amount of skill or road awareness can save you from the inevitable if such a situation arises!

  4. elliot yardley 08/07/2019 9:07 PM

    do away with smart motorways .waste of money and to dangerous.

  5. Martin Woodward 08/07/2019 10:14 PM

    Totally agree with the first comment. There is nothing smart about a smart motorway. Having been a driving instructor for over 30 years, I find them totally frightening. And when all the electric cars come into being I can only see it getting worse! Whoever came up with the crazy idea needs their head seeing to.

  6. Jeff 09/07/2019 6:45 AM

    Sure, there are some drawbacks/compromises – but overall having additional capacity is essential to cater for the existing traffic let alone future growth. Fatal accidents are of course tragic , but ignorance of road conditions and driving requirements cannot drag us back. I travel on the M1 & M6 a lot and smart/4th lane motorway improvements have made a huge difference. Perhaps more TV education on these issues would help the motorway unaware & novices ?

    • Our Arts Magazine 09/07/2019 10:19 AM

      I think that’s a great idea.

    • Alan Newman 10/07/2019 12:04 PM

      This is a dangerous and conceited comment. Read the stats. oulined.
      Not everyone is a fool but momentary lapses of concentration happen, breakdons happen etc. No hard shoulder substantially increases risk.

    • Pauline Bailey 12/07/2019 12:44 PM

      I agree about more TV road instruction. Whilst in Germany with the forces they showed all sorts of road safety hints. For example the zipper system where merging traffic filters in every other car. Everyone watches TV and it’s a great way to get the message over to millions of motorists.

  7. Eric Hayman 09/07/2019 9:58 AM

    Jeff – would you agree that having both a hard shoulder and an extra lane is better than no hard shoulder? If having a hard shoulder is no longer considered a required part of a motorway, why not do away with all hard shoulders? If no hard shoulder is considered “safe” for the busiest sections of our motorways, then it must logically be safe for the less used sections. Hard shoulders have become akin to a person having voluntary insurance for some risk. But here it is the DfT – the State – that has removed the choice of paying the voluntary premium. The DfT has decided that it is now acceptable to have people killed when their vehicles have lost power or have otherwise broken down and there is no hard shoulder to coast onto. Unable to reach a so-called “refuge area”, the driver and passengers are at serious risk of being rear-ended.

    If, as you say, “having additional capacity is essential to cater for the existing traffic let alone future growth.”, then build the additional capacity AND keep the hard shoulders.

  8. Paul Bradley 09/07/2019 12:34 PM

    As an hgv/lgv driver I was told by the tutor of a cpc course that smart motorways have been determined not to work and they aren’t doing anymore after the current work has finished.
    Furthermore smart motorways only work if smart minded people are employed to operate the information, most of the time they cause a lot of confusion anger and frustration.

  9. Diane Bowler 09/07/2019 7:40 PM

    I avoid smart motorways as I believe them to be very dangerous. This is based on reports from breakdown engineers who have resigned from their jobs because of the added danger. It is dangerous enough breaking down on a normal motorway without the added pressure of “obliging” motorist to stop if you have to stop. Moronic decision to instigate these.

  10. Jean 09/07/2019 8:28 PM

    ‘Smart’ motorways = supposed answer to current and future traffic density predictions, with a ‘risk assessment’ that some ,as yet unpredicted, loss of life will occur. You couldn’t make it up !!

  11. Mick Williams. 10/07/2019 6:30 AM

    Sounds like the DfT / State should leave well alone until they can afford to make safer changes to the whole system. One death is too much.

  12. G Snaith 10/07/2019 9:03 AM

    There’s nothing “smart” about a motorway with no hard shoulder. As usual our government refuses to spend money on this country’s infrastructure.

  13. Anthony Armistead 10/07/2019 10:11 AM

    ‘What to do if you breakdown on a smart motorway’ has not been given , by far, the huge attention it warrants. Especially if you break down and are unable to make a ‘safe’ area.
    The whole information process has just not been thought through. I agree wholeheartedly with Eric Hayman’s comments (above) and his especial reference to cost of HS2 etc.

  14. Bob Wark 10/07/2019 10:52 AM

    In driving about recently it one sees giant posters saying that stretchers of our motorways are being “upgraded” to smart motorways. This campaign of repeatedly asserting an untruth similar in character to the “strong and stable government” idea is rubbish. These stretchers of motorway are being DOWNGRADED, being made less safe.

  15. Bernard Dessoy 10/07/2019 11:41 AM

    M20 Ashford to Maidstone westbound is supposed to be a smart motorway. Trouble is is was designed by an idiot. There are just two lanes and no hard shoulder, obviously causing frequent traffic jams Then there is a wall on your right with two empty lanes on the right of that. There is a sign as you enter this nightmare that work would start on it in February 2019. Six months later nothing has been done while the two empty lanes remain unused.

  16. Richard Handley 10/07/2019 12:04 PM

    Driving a lot in Germany, Holland, Belgium and particularly France, I am embarrassed by our “Smart” motorway scheme in the UK and by drivers lack of driving knowledge/etiquette. Every journey takes far longer due to the multiple sections of 50mph limits for many miles with barely anyone in sight actually doing any work. Why is the work taking so long? Is progress waiting to be paid for by the fines from the average speed cameras?
    Then, when ths “smart” sections are completed, the lack of lane discipline causes congestion and probably accidents, where so many drivers insist on driving in lane 3 or 4 effectively building up traffic and, as I have often witnessed, angry manoeuvres to overtake on the inside, cut in close after overtaking or drive far to close behind the ignorant lane hogger.
    In France we drive for hundreds of miles with no road works on 2/3 lane motorways where everyone generally stays in lane 1 unless overtaking. Yes, many of the motorways have tolls, but the free ones are still way better than British motorways.
    Our motorways and potholed roads must make us look like a third world country to international visitors.

    • John Savill 02/08/2019 8:09 AM

      Returning from a business trip to France recently I thought a tyre had deflated when I joined the M20 the difference in the ride and tyre noise was so great.

  17. Anthony Davis 11/07/2019 7:49 AM

    “16 crashes involving stationary vehicles on our 400 miles of smart motorway. There were 29 crashes on the hard shoulder across the rest of England’s motorways.” it would be interesting to see what proportion of smart and “the rest” these figures represent.

  18. Peter Murray 11/07/2019 10:44 AM

    The only thing guaranteed with Smart motorways and motorways with no lighting is DEATH GUARANTEED we just don’t know if it will be you or me but it will happen.
    The money we pay through road tax and fuel tax etc does easily cover the costs for all of us to have a safe driving environment.

    • Frank Gray 15/07/2019 11:32 AM

      I agree with you. If the Govt used all the money motorists contribute every year, they could safely extend motorways by adding a proper extra Lane and not doing a botch job by unsafely using the hard shoulder.

  19. Nina Laking 11/07/2019 10:57 AM

    I found all of the above information and comments very helpful and interesting. I travel on the M62 regularly and on my own in most cases. As well as the hardshoulder problem I find the speed some drivers do is quite frightening and also the way they drive onto a motorway, I always try and make sure I have space around me just in case.

  20. Tony Brears 11/07/2019 12:59 PM

    I have frequently used the M1 between Junctions 33 and 35A over many years. In my opinion making this section a so-called “smart” motorway has made it more dangerous, caused more confusion, increased journey times by unnecessarily reducing speed limits and created more congestion (and therefore more pollution). There is nothing “smart” about it!

  21. sarah Joiner 11/07/2019 5:45 PM

    At this time, when we face Global Warming, a large part of which comes from traffic on motorways, doesnt it seem more sustainable to look at reducing the traffic? I have no solution as to HOW, but to disregard the impact of ever increasing the problem we might be better advised to look at a long term reduction. Otherwise the bigger picture of polution & global warming will get worse, and that is definitely not sustainable,

  22. Me 11/07/2019 8:35 PM

    I think that for Smart read …….Another way of bleeding the motorist dry with fines due to the average speed camera system that runs all the time!!

    It is just another way of implementing the Nanny State that we are living in rather than actually spending money in ways to actually protect and improve driving conditions like adding additional lanes, as already mentioned, and repairing the road surface but hey ho it will only get worse!!

  23. Nigel 12/07/2019 11:49 AM

    Leave motorways as they are. Let’s develop a system that prevents access when they’re at capacity or, if so-called smart roads are insisted on, make a soft hard shoulder at lesser expense to both life and our purses.

  24. dave 12/07/2019 5:35 PM

    This and other smart ideas are not smart at all,on motor ways at speeds of 70 lit or not lit are very dangerous at the best of times now we have no safety lane for emergencies bad enough in the daylight but at night and no were to go if your vehicle conks out what the hell do you do duck down and pray ?.It is ok saying pull over to the inside lane but nine times out of ten your car does not brake down in the right lane or give you time to turn over to the inside lane.”i am afraid that is the time to pray?.

  25. Stephen Jones 14/07/2019 2:06 PM

    I’m an ex-firefighter from a station close to the M62. In emergencies, we were very
    often compelled to use the hard shoulder to get to an incident when all three of the other lanes where at a standstill. How are emergency services expected to reach the front of four lanes of solid congestion?

  26. Lynn Williams 15/07/2019 3:25 PM

    These so called smart motorways were thought up by arrogant people who couldn’t care less about the motorists and passengers that travel on these dangerous roads.
    It’s the luck of the draw if you break down and risk being killed, what’s smart about that?

  27. Bernard Dessoy 09/08/2019 7:23 PM

    It’s quite clear from reading all the above comments that the quicker we get rid of smart motorways the longer we’ll live. All the billions of pounds spent on them would have been far better spent on the NHS which would then have had less injured motorists to deal with.

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