Official guidelines say recovery firms should “not rely on a red X closure sign” when helping broken-down vehicles
Recovery firms are not allowed to stop and help motorists whose vehicles have broken down on smart motorway lanes that have been closed with ‘red X’ signs. Instead, staff from firms like the AA, Green Flag and RAC must wait for police or Highways England vehicles to physically close the lane or tow the vehicle to a refuge area, according to official guidance.
The ‘best practice guidelines’ from the Survive Group – formed of senior police officers, Highways England and all major recovery firms – says breakdown operatives should “Never work in a live lane of a motorway lane unless the lane has been closed by a Police vehicle, HE [Highways England] Traffic Officer vehicle or Impact Protection Vehicle…Do not rely on a red X closure sign.”
• What is a smart motorway?
The recommendations mean the organisations involved in drafting the guidelines consider closed lanes on all-lane-running smart motorways too dangerous a place for breakdown operatives to work, even when red X signs on overhead gantries have informed motorists they must use other lanes.
While it is illegal to drive in closed ‘red X’ lanes, 180,000 drivers received warning letters in the 18 months between 2017 and summer 2018 for the offence – which is now enforced by cameras and results in three penalty points and a £100 fine.
The revelation that breakdown firms are not allowed to stop in ‘red X’ lanes is the latest in a slew of controversies related to smart motorways. In September last year accident data revealed the number of fatal motorway collisions increased by a fifth in 2018 compared to 2017.
A damning report written for Highways England and unearthed by the AA, meanwhile, found breaking down in the live lane of a smart motorway during off-peak hours is 216 per cent more dangerous than doing so on a conventional motorway.
Proponents of smart motorways – which are a cost-effective way of increasing traffic capacity compared to expanding or building new roads – highlight that motorways remain the safest type of road in the country, and also cite evidence that smart motorways are safer than conventional motorways in other respects.
That hasn’t stopped Transport Secretary Grant Shapps ordering an investigation into the roads, however, having told MPs: “we know people are dying on smart motorways”.
Edmund King, president of the AA, which has long campaigned against smart motorways, said: “Being stuck in a live lane is incredibly dangerous. The official advice is keep your seat belt and hazard lights on and dial 999.
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“It is not safe for breakdown organisations to recover vehicles unless the lane is closed and has a physical presence sat behind the casualty vehicle. This is either the Police with blue flashing lights or Highways England Traffic Officers with red flashing lights.
“This highlights the severity of breaking down in a live lane and further emphasises our calls for double the number of Emergency Refuge Areas. Providing drivers with more places of relative safety would reduce the risk of vehicles being stuck in a lane of fast moving traffic.”
A spokesperson for Highways England said: “The Transport Secretary has asked the Department for Transport to carry out, at pace, an evidence stocktake to gather the facts about smart motorway safety. We are committed to safety and are supporting the Department in its work on this.”
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