Emergency Refuge Areas – Smart Motorways

Emergency refuge areas are places for drivers to pull into when they have an emergency on a smart motorway. But do they actually work?

What are Smart Motorways?

Smart motorways were first trialled in 2006, with a stretch of the M42. The idea was to improve traffic flow by allowing drivers to use the hard shoulder as an extra ‘running lane’ during peak times. Gantry signs above the carriageway would show when the hard shoulder was available. The scheme was then gradually rolled out to other motorways.

In 2014, the scheme went one stage further. Highways England converted a very busy stretch of the M25 between junctions five and six, into an ‘all lane running’ motorway. This meant that what was the hard shoulder, was now a permanent driving lane. Traffic controllers would only close it in the event of an emergency.

There are now three different kinds of smart motorway:

  • All Lane Running – where all the lanes are permanently open to traffic (193 miles)
  • Dynamic Hard Shoulder – where the hard shoulder opens and closes depending on traffic flow (63 miles)
  • Controlled Motorway – where variable speed limit signs control the traffic flow

Click here to download a map of England’s smart motorway network.

Motorway Breakdowns


But what would happen if a vehicle were to break down when there is no hard shoulder? National Highways began the construction of emergency refuge areas at intervals along smart motorways. These areas provided a safe haven for drivers to pull into in the event of an emergency. The problems were however, that there were not enough of them and they were often too far apart.

If a driver were to break down and was unable to reach the emergency refuge areas; this is the advice given in The Highway Code:

  • get your vehicle to the left lane or a place of relative safety, and
  • exit your vehicle safely to get well away from it and moving traffic
  • stay in your vehicle
  • keep your seatbelts and hazard warning lights on
  • call 999 immediately and ask for the police. Alternatively, press your SOS button if your vehicle has one and ask for the police

This is where technology is supposed to help keep drivers and passengers safe. A system of cameras and radar sensors should detect a broken down vehicle. In response to that, they should also close lanes, and despatch emergency assistance. But does this system work; and what happens if it fails?

BBC Panorama

The BBC’s investigative documentary series Panorama, made a Freedom of Information request. They asked about the reliability of motorway technology and how often the technology failed. The reply stated that between June 2022, and February 2024, there were almost 400 incidents. There were power outages which meant that the systems designed to detect broken down vehicles were not working. And sometimes these power outages lasted for up to five days at a time. In the six months prior to the FOI the incidents were averaging almost one a day.

National Highways claim that figures show that smart motorways are the safest kind of road. However, a traffic office who spoke to Panorama, said that he no longer considered them safe.

At least 79 people have died on smart motorways since their introduction. People who have been lucky enough to survive incidents are calling for the reinstatement of hard shoulders, and the controversy over smart motorways continues to rage.

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