Breaking down in your car is the ultimate nightmare for any motorist. In fact breaking down on the motorway is most motorists’ idea of hell. Getting yourself to safety on the hard shoulder, parking your vehicle, and getting help is by no means an easy task. For this reason the government have come under fire by concerned motorists as plans to use the hard-shoulder as a ‘widening’ exercise are being criticised for being both dangerous and irresponsible.
The Highways Agency, which has run more than £3 billion over budget on its road-building programme, plans to save billions of pounds by abandoning essential widening. This is because converting a hard-shoulder for traffic costs about £10 million a mile, whereas widening costs up to £40 million a mile.
These costs are to be reduced even further by cutting the number of lay-bys, which the agency calls “emergency refuge areas”. These are located every 500 metres on the M42 east of Birmingham, where the agency began a trial in September 2006 of allowing drivers to use the hard-shoulder during busy periods. It has now been decided to extend hard-shoulder running on the M6 through Birmingham and Walsall but to widen the gaps between refuges to 800 metres.
The Department for Transport has urged the Highways Agency to consider hard-shoulder running without any refuges at all, in order to save money. If you breakdown, operators watching the roads using CCTV cameras will close the hard-shoulder using a red ‘X’ on the electronic matrix signs and reduce the speed limit on other lanes.
The AA responded to these plans claiming the Highways Agency were putting cost-cutting over the safety of motorists.
Edmund King, president of the AA, said: “The agency is jumping the gun by reducing the number of refuges. It is good practice to obtain three years of accident data before making such big changes. We are concerned that motorists will be caught short, unable to reach the next refuge and having the terrifying experience of being stopped amid fast-flowing traffic”.
The refuges currently seen on our motorways are actually half as wide again as a hard-shoulder making them much safer places to stop and allowing more room for breakdown recovery vehicles to attend to distressed motorists. But the number of accidents between 2002 and 2006 on hard-shoulders (see below) are relatively low, which prompted the Highways Agency to go ahead and make plans to cut costs.
Hard-shoulder accidents on UK motorways between 2002-2006:
• 531 total injury accidents that involved a vehicle on, entering or leaving a hard-shoulder.
• 1.4% of all motorway accidents
• 114 seriously injured
• 51 killed
A Highways Agency spokesman said that there had been minor collisions during hard-shoulder running on the M42 but no deaths or serious injuries. This had persuaded the agency that it would be safe to cut costs by having fewer refuges and gantries.
The Campaign for Better Transport said that the Government had already increased the risks by raising the speed limit when the M42 hard-shoulder was in running use from 50mph to 60mph. Richard George, the organisation’s roads campaigner, said: “Ministers tried to sell hard-shoulder running as a greener alternative to widening. But they keep moving the goal posts and are turning it into a polluting and risky way of squeezing every last inch of capacity out of our roads”.
We now await the outcome of which motorways will get a hard-shoulder running lane, but so far more than 250 miles of motorway have been considered including sections of the M1, M3, M4, M5, M6, M25 and M62, in order to create a cheaper alternative to motorway widening.