Motorway lay-bys turning orange

Motorists using the M3 Smart Motorway in Surrey will find it hard not to notice orange lay-bys from this summer, Highways England hopes, as a pilot scheme intended to enhance perceptions of the safety of all-lane-running (ALR) gets underway.

Highways England is conducting a full review of the length, spacing and safe use of emergency refuge areas in response to the transport select committee's criticisms of the safety of ALR. The select committee has said the Department for Transport should order the HE to revert to earlier designs of Smart Motorway with dynamic use of hard shoulder running and ERAs at closer spacing to ensure safety. This is despite the HE's risk analysis and assurances that ALR is at least as safe as conventional motorways.

The HE's chief executive, Jim O'Sullivan, has said he believes the crux of the problem is an issue of perception and confidence. The ALR configuration of Smart Motorways has appeared to reduce safety as hard shoulders have been permanently removed and distances between ERAs has increased to 2.5km, but this is the same spacing as seen elsewhere on the trunk road network, the HE says. It now has a job of convincing the Select Committee and motoring groups and some emergency services that ALR is safe. It may have to wait until next year, when it has the full results of three years' use of ALR, before it can do that convincingly.

“We recognise the public concern about Smart Motorways and we also believe that changes such as these will help drivers have confidence when using them and be clear about where they can stop in an emergency," O'Sullivan said.

“That is why we are trialling these highly visible new style emergency areas. The bright orange colouring will make them as easy as possible to spot and should also discourage drivers from using them in non-emergency situations. This is just one of the ways we are helping drivers to understand Smart Motorways and their benefits. I hope it helps drivers feel more confident about using a Smart Motorway.”

In the latest print issue of Infrastructure Intelligence, published this week, O'Sullivan gives his two-year status report on the HE and its delivery of the circa £12bn roads investment strategy. The HE has narrowly missed out on its targets for road user satisfaction, which has declined as roadworks ramp up, the Transport Focus road and rail watchdog reported this month.

But according to O'Sullivan, the HE has brought a radical improvement in safety on its sites and is on course to deliver the 112 major projects of the RIS as planned. The HE's spending through the supply chain will start to exceed £5m a day this summer and £2bn a year during this financial year.

O'Sullivan also reveals progress with addressing an £841m gap between the RIS programme and funds available, reported by the National Audit Office earlier this year.  The HE has now got this down to £717m, of which about £500m is down to over-programming to account for schemes that don't pass through statutory planning and approvals. "At present we've got a circa £200m risk of overspend, which out of a programme of £12bn is not too bad a position to be in," he says.

The orange lay-bys initiative goes hand in hand with work being done on with vehicle recovery organisations on safe practice for entering and exiting ERAs, O'Sullivan adds. The HE has also started to write to motorists seen driving in lanes closed by Red X gantry signs, which is another sticking point raised by the select committee. Red X compliance is an important issue for ALR, but the HE currently doesn't have data available to present to MPs. "It's something we're working on," a HE spokesman said.