Emergency pull off areas on smart motorways, spaced every 1.6 miles, are to be painted bright orange in an effort to make them stand out so drivers know where they are and what they’re to be used for. Highways England has said that 52% of drivers didn’t even know emergency refuge areas existed on smart motorways. This is of grave concern, as if an accident or fault on a vehicle occurred, drivers would not know where to stop.

According to the Daily Mail, an RAC study of 2,000 drivers indicated ‘considerable confusion’ about how to use emergency refuges. In addition, 64% were unsure about what to do after stopping and 65% were unclear about how to re-join the road with such a short lay-by to pull out from.

Orange refuge bay trials in Surrey

For the last few weeks, there have been trials on the M3 smart motorway in Surrey and Hampshire, where emergency refuge bays have been painted bright orange and new signage has been put up. The refuge areas are in place for when drivers have an emergency while there is no hard shoulder. Those drivers otherwise run the risk of causing congestion or accidents.

To support the trial, a marketing campaign across social media, radio and television, has been put in place to remind motorists to check their tyres, water, oil levels and fuel before making journeys, to avoid unnecessary breakdowns.

The campaign also highlights that drivers should not use lanes with a red X above them, as this means that there is an obstruction ahead which could disrupt the flow of traffic.

Orange bays as a deterrent

It is hoped that the creation of orange bays, combined with concentrated marketing activity, will deter drivers from using emergency bays other than in an emergency. Some drivers are mistakenly seeing the emergency bays as lay-bys to pull over in, similar to lay-bys that appear on the UK’s A roads.

The point of changing the signage and painting the bays bright orange is to visually notify drivers that you must only go into them if it’s an emergency and to deter drivers from using the bays for other purposes. Whether Highways England is considering the introduction of cameras to police the bays (and fine those who use them for non-emergency reasons) has not been discussed.

Experts concerned orange bays not enough

Despite these new measures, motoring experts do not think that orange bays are enough.

AA President Edmund King feels there needs to be double the amount of emergency refuges on smart motorways without a hard shoulder. The current plan is a refuge every 1.6 miles or 75 seconds of driving at 60 mph.

King comments,

“Whilst we support measures to improve motorway capacity, we do not think that safety should be compromised. We do not accept that the current criteria of emergency refuge areas are safe. Breaking down in a live running lane with trucks thundering up behind you is every driver’s worst nightmare. The official advice is to dial 999, which just shows how dangerous the situation can be.”

The RAC is equally concerned that not enough has been done to protect motorists through orange bays. RAC road safety spokesperson, Pete Williams, comments,

“Smart motorways are becoming an increasingly common feature of our motorways across England as they are rolled-out in effort to tackle congestion but there is still a good deal of misunderstanding about what to do in the event of a breakdown or an accident.

“The planned development also includes a clear indication of where to stop, additional distance markers between ERAs, and better signage with the internationally recognised SOS acronym to improve understanding of how they should and shouldn’t be used. We hope this will be rapidly adopted across existing and all new smart motorways.”

Congestion solution at cost of road safety?

Smart motorways have long been seen as a more cost effective way to tackle road congestion than a huge road widening programme. However, in some people’s eyes, smart motorways have helped ease road congestion at the overall expense of road safety, due to the elimination of the hard shoulder.

There is a lack of data to support any argument against emergency refuge bays. However, without a hard shoulder, if there is an accident or a vehicle needs to pull over in an emergency, smart motorways feel less safe to drivers. Tackling this perception is a big challenge for the government over the next few years.

What do you think about orange emergency refuge bays? Do you think they’re a good idea or do you think they put drivers at risk? Have you used one on the M3? Let us know in the comments below.

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