Six in 10 drivers think that all-lane-running smart motorway schemes should be scrapped and the hard shoulder reinstated according to research carried out for the RAC Report on Motoring 2021.

Only a quarter of the 2,600-plus drivers surveyed by the RAC support the continuation of current government policy, which is to stick to four permanent running lanes and no hard shoulder, while increasing the number of emergency refuge areas and including extra technology to detect stationary vehicles and cameras to catch motorists who put others at risk by ignoring closed-lane signs.

Overall, most drivers do not believe the measures being implemented by National Highways to compensate for the removal of the hard shoulder – such as variable speed limits in response to incidents or to control traffic flow, closed-lane signs, SOS emergency refuge areas up to every 1.6 miles apart and technology to detect slowing or stationary vehicles – are adequate. Just 15% stated they thought they were adequate.

The RAC research also indicates a sharp increase in safety concerns about smart motorways with 24% of drivers citing this as one of their top overall motoring concerns. Drivers over 65 expressed the most concern about the issue, with 44% listing it as their top concern. Less than half of drivers (43%) who have driven on all-lane running stretches of motorway feel safe on them, while 30% say they don’t feel very safe and a quarter (24%) state they feel ‘very unsafe’.

The fear of what would happen in the event of a breakdown on an all-lane-running motorway clearly weighs heavy on drivers’ minds with 84% believing that safety is compromised by the permanent removal of the hard shoulder – up from 67% when drivers were last asked this in the 2019 RAC Report on Motoring.

Drivers also lack confidence in the authorities’ ability to respond to live-lane breakdowns or incidents. Just 30% of motorists say they trust National Highways’ abilities to detect a stationary vehicle in a running lane and react accordingly, down sharply from 53% in 2019, while only 54% say the majority of drivers obey red ‘closed-lane’ signs which are used to keep traffic out of lanes where a breakdown or other incident has occurred, down from 60% two years ago.

RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: “Our research reveals the strength of feeling among drivers of all ages about the safety of all-lane-running smart motorways. But while there’s support for scrapping these motorways across all age groups, it’s highest among those aged 45 and over, with 73% wanting to see the end of these schemes.

“We’ve always had safety concerns about all-lane-running motorways and have raised these by giving evidence to two separate Transport Committee inquiries. While the Government published its 18-point action plan in 2020, the RAC has continued to push for new safety features to be introduced as quickly as possible. 

“The Government is faced with a difficult choice between continuing to roll out unpopular all-lane-running motorways very much against drivers’ wishes or reinstating the hard shoulder, effectively creating three-lane ‘controlled motorways’ which would have the benefit of improved safety features but with less overall capacity.”