Highways England are running a trial to see whether emergency lay-bys can be improved by painting them orange. What are they up to?
Work to upgrade the M3 between junctions 2 and 4A to Smart Motorway has just been finished, and already the UK's newest stretch of hi-tech highway is being used as a test bed for new ideas. Last week, Highways England announced they were starting trials of a new type of emergency area. Its main distinguishing feature is that it's been painted orange. Two have been installed on the M3 near Camberley.
The aim of the scheme is fairly simple. Highways England want drivers to be able to spot the emergency facilities more easily and they want it to be more obvious that they are for emergency use and not just parking up.
To a certain extent this is about making things simpler and more user-friendly for drivers, and is the kind of thing we should expect to see more often now that Highways England is a company that talks about customers rather than a Government agency that sees its work as a public service. The name is a good example - until now these have been called Emergency Refuge Areas, or ERAs, but customer research has told Highways England that people don't find the word "refuge" helpful, so it's been dropped. They are now to be known simply as Emergency Areas.
At the centre of this trial is a very honest recognition that Smart Motorways are still bewildering to some motorists, and that more can be done to make their features more intuitive.
"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.
"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 trial is not just about orange paint - it's also about Smart Motorways coming of age, and undergoing a transition from an experiment to an everyday part of motorway travel.
Part of the furniture
In the decade that this technology has been developing, it's been changing all the time. The official name has changed from Active Traffic Management to Managed Motorways to Smart Motorways, and the exact features (including the size, shape and spacing of emergency facilities) have varied from one scheme to the next. But things are settling down now and a standard has been set. In the coming years Highways England expect the majority of England's key inter-city routes to be Smart Motorways. What we have now is just the start.
When they were new, the features of a Smart Motorway were explained in writing. The earliest Variable Speed Limits on the M25 were accompanied by instructions to Stay In Lane and Observe Limits. Big blue signs at the start of the original M42 trial explained how the hard shoulder might sometimes be in use and sometimes not. Many emergency lay-bys have black and yellow signs with paragraphs of Do and Do Not instructions. But if Smart Motorways are going to be a part of the furniture, we need to throw away the instruction manual and make them easy to use.
Taking a break
One persistent problem is misuse of emergency areas. When motorways were new in the 1950s, the "no stopping" rule was famously hard to enforce, with stories of people parking up and having picnics on the grass verges. The hard shoulder is still commonly used by people pulling in to make a phone call or get something out of the boot, and the sight of a parent taking a small child for an impromptu toilet break is common on any long journey.
On Smart Motorways, especially those with All Lane Running, there's no hard shoulder, but non-emergency parking still happens. Give a lorry driver a lay-by and they'll pull in for a rest break.
Motorways in the UK have never had lay-bys and they've never provided roadside facilities to stop for a rest - something HGV drivers legally have to do at regular intervals. But across Europe lay-bys are common even on some motorways, and foreign HGV drivers seem to regularly confuse emergency facilities on Smart Motorways with the Free Parking space on the Monopoly board.
Although they are described as orange, these new bays are more amber than orange. If you compare the orange colour on the sign diagrams above, the shade used to cover the bays are more like the amber used on roadwork signage!
Lets hope HE installs a few on the A303 as I can see them working on A class roads but motorways? Hmm, it'd only work if the emergency layby is long enough to build up speed prior to joining the main carriageway.
"Motorways in the UK have never had lay-bys and they've never provided roadside facilities to stop for a rest" - perhaps the authors here are unfamiliar with the various MSAs (motorway service area) and motorway truck stops across the entire country?
We have heard of motorway service areas thanks, and I was once told a story around a campfire late at night by someone who had actually visited one of those mythical places. Perhaps one day I'll see one for myself!
Service areas and truck stops all require drivers to leave the motorway, even if only by a short distance. The point is that motorways do not have the equivalent of the roadside lay-bys that you find on non-motorway roads in the UK and sometimes on motorways overseas.
It's also good to see traffic sign obscuration - the temporary a-frame sign (50mph and average speed camera text / symbol) helps to block the driver's view should they wish to exit the lay-by in the image above. It's also clever the way the driver location sign is completely obscurred by the other temporary sign (the text about the CCTV in action). So if anyone wishes to report any issues at the location or similar (by quoting the reference on the driver location sign), they can't. Since this is supposed to be showing Highways England acting with thought and correct effort, they're shooting themselves in the foot with the images they're using. Did they know the images they're using aren't suitable, or did they, and just chose to go ahead regardless I wonder?
Until the 1970s, motorway hard shoulders paved in a different colour to the main carriageway. Mostly shades of red, beige, green or white. So, this is going retro.
Soon to also appear on the M1 between J16-19!
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- Highways England press notice: M3 gets first 'orange' smart motorway emergency area, 14/07/17.
- Photographs of the trial emergency area on the M3 are courtesy Highways England.