Follow The RAC Media Centre

Report on Motoring 2015: 4. Motorways and the strategic road network

Blog post   •   Sep 08, 2015 00:05 BST

In contrast to their views on the condition of local roads, only a minority of motorists feel that the state of the UK’s motorways has deteriorated in the past 12 months.

Most drivers support the introduction of more smart motorways and welcome the extra capacity they create through variable speed limits and use of the hard shoulder as a running lane. But a majority still complain of increasing numbers of roadworks and longer journey times. Unfortunately, these issues are likely to get worse before they get better as a result of the Government’s programme of motorway and major trunk road improvements scheduled over the next five years.

The Road Investment Strategy is essential to create a strategic road network that can support economic growth. Policymakers and other representative groups who have argued for long-term investment in the strategic road network need to make it clear to motorists that this short-term disruption is a price worth paying.


4.1 The state of our motorways

The condition and maintenance of motorways is the top concern of just 3% of motorists according to this year’s Report on Motoring, while a further 10% cite this as one of their other top four concerns. By way of comparison, more than three times as many (10%) say the state of local roads is the most important issue.

But around a third of motorists (30%) – a significant minority – say the condition of motorways has deteriorated in the past 12 months (against 50% who take this view of local roads). Most of them (85%) blame problems with the motorway surface for this view, although litter (24%), lane-marking visibility (21%) and carriageway lighting (14%) are also concerns. This echoes research from Transport Focus published in July 2015 which found that better quality road surface was the top priority among drivers when it came to improvements of England’s strategic roads (24).

With regard to motorists’ priorities for government spending on transport, maintenance of motorways and other major roads is second only to maintenance of local roads. Six in ten drivers (61%) say that targeted improvements to motorways and other major roads, such as removing bottlenecks, are one of their top five priorities for transport investment.

Congestion is, not surprisingly, seen as becoming a greater problem: 44% of motorists say that increasing traffic volumes over the past 12 months have led to more congestion, although the question addressed all major roads, such as motorways, high speed dual carriageways or major A roads. This figure rises to 55% in the North West, which is pertinent to government intentions to make large-scale infrastructure investment in the region as part of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ initiative.

When faced with how to fund road improvements, motorists have mixed views. There is some support for an increase in the number of toll roads: in 2015, 41% of motorists say they support their introduction but only if offset by a reduction in other motoring taxes (up from 35% last year).

However, research for the Report on Motoring was undertaken just before the Government’s announcement that from 2020-21, Vehicle Excise Duty will be ring-fenced to fund the next and subsequent Road Investment Strategies.

Finally, 70% of drivers say they regularly or occasionally break the 70mph speed limit on motorways, a far higher percentage than admit to breaking other speed limits.

In January 2015, it was reported that transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin was considering introducing 80mph limits on certain parts of the motorway network and the coalition government originally proposed increasing the limit in 2011, but plans were shelved two years later. RAC therefore calls on the Government to clarify its position on a possible increase in the limit to 80mph.


4.2 Smart motorways: are they safe enough?

Smart motorways, previously known as managed motorways, are becoming increasingly common in England. They are designed to increase motorway capacity and cut congestion through the introduction of variable speed limits and the use of the hard shoulder as a running lane, particularly during busy periods.

The programme was originally piloted on a stretch of the M42 in the Midlands, and ‘smart’ sections of motorway can now be found on the M1, M4, M5, M6 and M25. There appears to be good support for the introduction of smart motorways among motorists: a majority (56%) agree they are an effective way of increasing motorway capacity.

In the RAC’s view, a question mark remains, however, over the safety of the newly introduced ‘all-lane-running’ configuration of smart motorways. In the ‘dynamic hardshoulder’ configuration – used on the M42 pilot and the majority of other smart motorways now in operation – the hard shoulder is only opened for use as an extra running lane at busy times when extra capacity is needed, while under the all-lane-running configuration, the hard shoulder is permanently converted into an extra lane.

Dynamic hard shoulder smart motorways have been in use for some time, and have been shown to be significantly safer than conventional motorways with three lanes and a hard shoulder. This is due to a combination of reasons including close monitoring by Highways England through CCTV, variable speed limits that slow traffic down in busy periods and easy-to-reach Emergency Refuge Areas (ERAs) for use when users break down or are involved in an incident when the hard shoulder is in use as a running lane: on the M42, for example, ERAs are spaced between 500m and 800m apart.

But on later implementations of the dynamic hard shoulder configuration and on the new all-lane- running sections, the ERAs are further apart at distances of up to 2.5km. In this situation, a driver whose vehicle suffers a catastrophic failure will have little alternative to stopping in the inside running lane and waiting for Highways England to spot them and close the lane to traffic. On a motorway with a dynamic hard shoulder, the inside running lane reverts to a hard shoulder and on all-lanes running, red crosses are displayed over the inside lane to instruct drivers to move over to the next lane.

Unfortunately, early experience suggests other drivers are less inclined to obey these lane closure signs on an all-lanes-running section of motorway than when the hard shoulder is closed to traffic on a smart motorway with the dynamic hard shoulder configuration. This places the casualty vehicle, its occupants and those providing assistance (the emergency services or roadside assistance providers) at greater risk. All new sections of smart motorway are expected to be based on the all-lane-running configuration.

RAC therefore calls on Highways England to monitor accident and casualty rates closely on those sections of smart motorway where all-lanes-running is in use and to consider reconfiguring these and planned sections of all-lanes-running motorway to have a dynamic hard shoulder.

Relatively few motorists have experience of driving on both smart motorway configurations and it is evident that the associated safety benefits are not generally understood. A fifth (20%) of drivers responded that they believe that the dynamic hard shoulder configuration is less safe than a conventional motorway with a permanent hard shoulder, and a slightly higher percentage (25%) took a similar view for the all-lanes-running variant compared to a conventional motorway.

Motorists were also asked about the variable message signs that are an important feature of today’s motorways and which are also used more widely on the strategic network. These signs provide motorists with information such as the length of time it is likely to take to reach upcoming junctions and whether there is any congestion ahead or on other roads.

A majority (53%) think that the information displayed on such signs is useful, while 50% believe it to be accurate. But 36% still believe the accuracy of the information is poor or has deteriorated while a third (33%) say the information is not useful or has got worse.

Clearly therefore, there remains scope for improvement and we anticipate Transport Focus will provide regular feedback to Highways England on this as part of their measurement of user satisfaction.


4.3 No pain, no gain: investment in the strategic road network

At the end of 2014, the coalition government published the first Road Investment Strategy (RIS), a long-term programme of improvements and investment in strategic roads in England (26).

The strategic road network in England consists of 1,865 miles of motorway and 2,571 miles of trunk A-roads, which are mainly high-speed dual carriageways. The network represents just 2% of all roads by length but carries around a third of all traffic.

The first five-year RIS, which runs until 2020-21, will see more than £15bn of approved funding invested in over 100 major schemes: this includes adding extra capacity through introduction of more smart motorways and tackling bottlenecks on other major trunk roads, creating ‘expressways’, reducing noise, making more of the network ‘cycle-friendly’ and improving safety.

Implementation of the RIS has catalysed significant changes for a number of related organisations. In April 2015, the Highways Agency became a company wholly owned by the Government, and was renamed Highways England. The Office of Rail Regulation has now become the Office of Rail and Road with new responsibilities for independent oversight of Highways England. Meanwhile, the independent passenger watchdog Passenger Focus has been renamed Transport Focus and will monitor the satisfaction of users of England’s strategic road network.

Overall, this new process should help to put an end to the inefficiency and uncertainty – both for the construction industry and road users – that was a feature of the piecemeal, short-term approach taken by successive governments over the last two decades.

Highways England’s role, however, is still not well understood by road users. This year’s Report on Motoring found, for example, that 38% of drivers still admit to being confused by the role of Highways England’s traffic officers, who help to keep traffic flowing by managing incidents to reduce the impact of congestion. Only 20% of motorists claim that they understand this role.

And with more than two-thirds (69%) of drivers saying that they are seeing more roadworks now than in previous years, Highways England faces a stiff challenge in ensuring that drivers understand its broader role in improving the network. The RIS will inevitably mean that there is a further increase in roadworks, congestion and delays over the next few years. RAC therefore calls on Highways England, and indeed all organisations which have argued for major investment in the strategic network, to make the case that these further delays and congestion in the short term is a price worth paying for a much-improved network that can support economic growth in the 2020s.

In his Budget in July 2015, Chancellor George Osborne unveiled a major change to the way future road investment strategies will be paid for: from 2020/21, all revenue collected from Vehicle Excise Duty will be ring-fenced and allocated to a new Roads Fund to be spent solely on strategic roads, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland benefiting from this as well as England.

In Scotland, investment and maintenance on the strategic road network is managed by Transport Scotland. They are tasked by the Scottish Government to manage major projects through the Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR) and the Infrastructure Investment Plan (2011). In Wales, the Department for the Economy, Science and Transport holds overall responsibility whilst in Northern Ireland this belongs to Transport NI.