Love them or loathe them, smart motorways seem to be here to stay. Their electronic overhead gantries give you important information such as an upcoming variable speed limit or a lane closure—marked with a red ‘X’. But instead of moving to another lane, as you should when you see a red X sign, Highways England says thousands of motorists ignore them.

Now, thanks to new legislation allowing penalty enforcement by gantry-mounted automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras, as of the 10th of June, if you’re snapped driving in a closed lane, you’ll get an automatic £100 fine and three penalty points on your licence.

Red alert

Since 2006, Highways England has turned hundreds of miles of England’s motorways into ‘smart’ motorways—using the hard shoulder either as a permanent or part-time traffic lane, depending on the smart motorway format. With the potential of no available hard shoulder, if you break down or are in a collision, operators can close lanes to help protect you.

Punishment for using a closed lane isn’t new. Failure to obey a lawful traffic sign is an offence under section 36(1) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 and you risk a fine of up to £1,000 plus three penalty points, or even disqualification. Until now, prosecution for ignoring a red X sign relied on a police officer witnessing the offence.

A survey by the RAC of 2,093 motorists showed that 99% of respondents understood a red X meant a lane closure and 84% of those who used a smart motorway in the last year noticed the red Xs on overhead gantries. Yet 23% ignored these signs and used closed lanes at least occasionally and on purpose, or accidentally.

Forty-eight per cent of those questioned stated they observed motorists disobeying red X signs ‘frequently’ with 36% witnessing it ‘occasionally’.

Only 7% of respondents reported not having seen motorists ignore red X signs but speak to a regular motorway user and they might tell you they’re frustrated seeing too many warnings for non-existent hazards, which could explain the level of complacency—a dangerous thing when driving, especially on a motorway.

When asked their opinions of those motorists who snub red X signals, 61% of those surveyed considered these drivers ‘irresponsible’. Fifty-four per cent said they’re at risk of getting into a serious accident, 45% said they’d made an innocent but potentially dangerous mistake, and 37% said they were unobservant and perhaps shouldn’t be driving.

Sixty-six per cent of motorists surveyed by the RAC were in favour of using ANPR cameras to catch those who drive on closed lanes with only 34% against.

One in 20 flout the rules

Mike Wilson, Chief Highways Engineer for Highways England, said:

“Our motorways are already among the safest in the world but this move will make them even safer.

“Red X signs over closed lanes help protect drivers from dangers ahead. Most drivers comply with lane closures, but the minority of people who don’t are putting themselves and other road users at real risk.

“We welcome this auto-enforcement and the increase to driver safety it will bring.”

Also welcoming automatic penalties for drivers ignoring red X signs is Edmund King, President of the AA. He said:

“Although it has taken far too long, this is a welcome measure to improve safety on motorways.”

King reported that their research showed that one in 20 drivers continue to drive in red X lanes even when they’ve seen the warning sign.

“Red X’s are put up to warn of an obstruction, so drivers must get out of the lane when they see them. We have had several incidents recently where AA members’ cars have been hit in a live lane on ‘smart’ motorways’,” he added.

Hit the road

There are three types of smart motorways; all of which use variable speed limits to suit conditions:

Controlled Motorways (CM), which keep a permanent hard shoulder only for emergencies.

Dynamic Hard Shoulder Motorways (also known as Managed Motorways Dynamic Hard Shoulder (MM-DHS)). DHS motorway hard shoulders can become a fourth lane during peak congestion.

All-Lanes Running Motorways (ALR). These motorways are the most common. In place of a hard shoulder are permanent fourth lanes and emergency refuge areas (ERAs) every 2.5km (1.55 miles).

Concerned for driver safety, organisations like the AA called for more refuge lay-bys on ALR routes to which Highways England said it would reduce the gap between ERAs to every mile, ‘where practical’, to offer ‘greater reassurance to road users’.

Safety aside, more ERAs would mean fewer instances of broken down vehicles causing lane closures, cutting the number of motorists getting fines and points on their licence because of not spotting a red X warning in time.

Many drivers say they sometimes can’t safely change lanes straight away, particularly during peak hours.

People have witnessed motorway drivers dangerously slam on their brakes when they see a sign for a speed change—presumably fearing the speed cameras. With this in mind, take extra care to avoid motorists who may now panic when they spot a red X, and suddenly swerve into another lane when it’s not safe and without warning.

Do you welcome the new legislation? Is this another revenue generator or a genuine safety issue? Tell us in the comments.

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