Highway Code set for smart motorway update

02/03/2021
Dominic Browne

Highways England has proposed changes to the Highway Code to improve safety on smart motorways, including advice on dynamic hard shoulders despite their upcoming ban.

A consultation, which comes as a campaign for the abolition of all smart motorways has garnered public attention, proposes an addition to the Code that states: 'The hard shoulder is used as an extra lane on some motorways during periods of congestion.

'You will know when the hard shoulder can be used as an extra lane because a speed limit will be shown above all open lanes, including the hard shoulder.'

If a hard shoulder only came into use 'during periods of congestion', it would make it a 'dynamic hard shoulder'.

The Government and Highways England have admitted the dynamic system is 'confusing' and promised to 'convert all existing dynamic hard shoulder smart motorways into all lane running by the end of March 2025 so there will be only one type without a permanent hard shoulder', as part of its action plan to imporve smart motorway safety.

A Highways England spokesman told Transport Network that when this work was completed 'there will be only one type of motorway without a permanent hard shoulder and this will provide a more consistent experience for motorists'.

'However, in the meantime it is important for road users to understand how dynamic hard shoulder motorways operate as they will still be a feature of the road network until the necessary conversion works have been completed.'

Highways England was unable to confirm that the clause would be removed after March 2025, but the spokesman said the code is 'reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that all of the guidance in it is accurate and valid - guidance that becomes out of date is amended or removed'.

Significant proposed updates

Other 'significant proposed updates' clarify issues around smart motorways such as what to do in a breakdown in an all lane running - no hard shoulder - section of motorway, the protocol for using and leaving an emergency refuge area, and the signage around smart motorways.

Importantly for the emergency areas, the proposed changes state: 'You MUST call the operator using the emergency telephone provided and follow the operator’s advice for exiting the emergency area. A lane may need to be closed so that you can rejoin the motorway safely.'

Emergency areas are located along motorways with no hard shoulder or where the hard shoulder is used as an extra lane and are for emergency use only.

The proposed changes also give advice for drivers breaking down on all lane running sections of a smart motorway: 'If you can’t get into the left lane, stay in your vehicle, keep your seatbelts and hazard warning lights on and call 999 immediately or press the SOS button if your vehicle has one and ask for the police.'

The proposals also note that 'where a closed left lane crosses an exit slip road this means that the exit cannot be used' drivers should continue to the next exit even if the route to the slip road appears to be clear.

Highways England said: 'Our proposed amendments to The Highway Code include new and additional guidance on:

  • the availability, appearance and safe use of emergency areas
  • the use of variable speed limits to manage congestion
  • the use of the red ‘X’ sign to close lanes and provide a safer area for the people and vehicles involved in incidents and road works
  • the use of hard shoulders that become extra lanes during periods of congestion
  • how road users can help keep themselves safe in the event of a breakdown
  • how safety cameras are employed to promote compliance with speed limits and lane closures

'We have also taken the opportunity to propose guidance which strengthens The Highway Code in relation to other factors that are contributing to incidents on motorways and other high-speed roads including:

  • driver fatigue
  • unroadworthy vehicles
  • unsafe towing
  • tailgating

The Highway Code contains advice to all road users and is made under the Road Traffic Act 1988. The Highway Code is a collection of two types of rules, both of which are proposed to be included within this update:

• MUST / MUST NOT rules which relate to legislation and if you breach these rules you are committing an offence. These rules include reference to the legislation which creates the offence

• SHOULD / SHOULD NOT or DO / DO NOT rules which are advisory and breaching them is not an offence, but it may be used in court when considering evidence in relation to driving or riding behaviour

The consultation period began on Monday (1 March) and will run until 29 March. 

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