Emergency Refuge Areas

Nothing smart about ‘deadly’ lay-bys on all-lane running motorways

Eight out of 10 drivers think that removal of hard-shoulders on SMART motorways has made motorways more dangerous

Eight out of 10 drivers think that removal of hard-shoulders on SMART motorways has made motorways more dangerous

Eight out of 10 drivers think that removal of hard-shoulders on SMART motorways has made motorways more dangerous than four years ago, according to an AA-Populus poll of 20,845 drivers.

Some drivers even refer to the lay-bys on these motorways as ‘death zones’.

The AA has raised concerns over SMART motorway safety in a recent letter to the new Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling MP. Prior to that the AA raised the issue with the Road Safety Minister, Highways England CEO and the Transport Select Committee.

Twice as many, twice as long

The main concern is the lack of lay-bys when the hard-shoulder is used as a running lane for the 130,000 AA members (and thousands of others) who breakdown on motorways each year. The Highways England guidance is for the Emergency Refuge Areas (ERA) to be no more than 2.6km apart (approx. 1.5 miles) whereas the AA would like to see at least twice as many lay-bys and they should be twice the length.

If a car breaks down without sight of a lay-by it is likely to stop in a live running lane where it will be at increased risk of being hit from behind.

If an HGV is parked up in the lay-by it makes it almost impossible for a car to safely enter the lay-by.

Emergency Breakdown Area

Highways England has also reported a problem of drivers (in particular foreign trucks) parking in the ERAs when it is not an emergency. Some officials believe that a clearer name is needed for the lay-bys. When given selected names in the AA Populus poll, the most popular was Emergency Breakdown Area (49%), Emergency Refuge Area (21%) and Breakdown Area (9%).

However, when drivers were asked to suggest their own names it became abundantly clear that many were not at all happy with the removal of the hard-shoulder or lack of lay-by provision. There were hundreds of suggestions along these lines:

  • Death Zone
  • Useless Concept Refuge Area
  • Desperate unreachable havens
  • Foolish Planners Promised Land
  • Good luck breaking down beside this space
  • Unwillingness to Invest Properly in Motorway Networks
  • Last port in a storm
  • Absolute Desperation Area
  • If you must break down, do so here
  • Pray to the motoring gods that you happen to break down right next to one of these areas' area.

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 an Emergency Refuge Area or exit at least every 2.6km is safe

Edmund King OBE, president of the AA

Capacity without compromise

Commenting, Edmund King OBE, AA president, said: “Four fifths of our members think that motorways without hard shoulders are more dangerous.

“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 an Emergency Refuge Area or exit at least every 2.6km is 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.

“If drivers can see the next lay-by, they are much more likely to make it to the relative safety of that area even if their car has a puncture or is overheating. If they can’t see the lay-by, they often panic and stop in a live running lane. If more lay-bys are designed at the planning stage it will be less expensive and safer.

“Unprompted, our members came up with some scary names for the Emergency Refuge Areas - which indicates just how worried they are. It is time for the Government to go back to the drawing board and design a scheme acceptable to drivers.”  

What to do if you break down

Breakdown advice

Don't ignore a Red X

In addition, even when a Red X is flashed up to warn drivers to avoid a lane where a car has broken down, collisions are still occurring. An AA member was hit on the M6 smart motorway near junction 13 only last week in such a situation.

A driver was spotted on the M3 all lane running roadworks section last week trying to change a tyre in a live running lane. No advance warning was given.

The AA’s concerns about the safety of these schemes were also raised by the police at a recent Transport Select Committee hearing.


(26 September 2016)